A Manufacturer’s Defect or Murder?
The Forensic Team Approach to a Product Liability Lawsuit
A bar at the edge of the woods named Ashes.
The fire-ravaged shell of a car discovered on the shoulder of a back road at 7 o’clock in the morning.
A corpse found in that car with its jaw broken and its incinerated body stripped of all identification.
Dental X rays mysteriously missing from the office of a dentist who had never before lost an X ray and who was now prevented from positively identifying the body.
A popular local attorney—coowner of Ashes—suddenly missing, in hiding, or dead.
These were the elements of what began as a simple, straight-forward product liability lawsuit that grew to encompass arson and murder.
Arthur H. Thorn, attorney in the Albany, NY, law firm of Carter, Conboy, Bardwell, Case & Blackmore, was introduced to this case in March 1975 via a lawsuit brought against his client, General Motors Corporation, by the widow of Charles Baumis, a resident of Glens Falls, NY.
Mrs. Baumis’ suit claimed that on September 21, 1974, Charles Baumis died as a result of a fire in a 1973 Buick Electra. The fire, according to the complaint, was caused by a defective carburetor or a defective fuel line. The car was brand new, purchased by Baumis one day prior to the fire.
Despite attempts on the part of General Motors to get Mrs. Baumis to specify more clearly how she thought the fire started, her attorneys and experts remained noncommittal. It started either here or there, the suit alleged, and the rules of the court permit the accusor to make such vague accusations. The defense, however, is obliged to be specific in its rebuttal or risk losing the case.
Early in his preparations for the defense, Thorn questioned one of the basic assumptions of the plaintiff’s case, i.e., that the dead body found in the car was indeed Charles Baumis. What if it wasn’t? Thorn asked himself. What if Charles Baumis were alive and well and living in Rio de Janeiro? If in fact the burned remains of the body in the car were not those of Baumis, the case Thorn was defending was not product liability at all but an arson-homicide.
The complete contents of the Baumis file, obtained from the Glens Falls county coroner’s office, consisted of one X ray, a portion of the left mandible of the body found in the car.
Not knowing how to interpret this X ray, Thorn took it to a forensic dentist, who, after examining the X ray, commented on how interesting the case appeared to be since it was obvious that “the victim’s jaw had been broken.”
The case became more intriguing when Thorn, to confirm this finding, consulted the nationally known forensic dentist Dr. Lowell J. Levine. Levine is a consultant to the office of the Nassau County Medical Examiner and the former president of the American Academy of Forensic Sciences.
Levine was less interested in the circumstances of the case than in the X ray itself. “It doesn’t matter who it is,” Dr. Levine said, “he’s been murdered.”
Thorn now had the evidence that he needed to assemble a team of some of the best forensic experts in the country.
Although no autopsy had been performed at the time of the death, slides had been made of the deceased’s liver, heart, and lungs, and Thorn had positive blow-up prints made of these.
Thorn then consulted with Dr. Leslie Lukash, chief medical examiner of the Nassau County Medical Examiner’s Office, and Dr. Dominic DiMaio, former chief medical examiner of the City of New York, showing them the anatomical photographs and asking them to interpret these. The doctors, whose findings were confirmed by Homer R. Campbell, the chief forensic odontologist of the Office of the Medical Investigator for the University of New Mexico’s School of Medicine, concluded that the organs had experienced antemortem trauma, indicating that the victim had received the injuries prior to death. The doctors also confirmed the fracture line on the jaw. The deceased had been murdered.
Photos courtesy of Charles G. King Associates
Information was also gathered on questions such as:
- How do bodies burn? (Most of the remains found in the car had been burned down to the white bone.)
- What temperatures are reached in a crematorium?
- What happens to the jawbone of a cremated body subject to intense heat? (It doesn’t crack.)
These facts led Thorn to call a “meeting of the minds” to which all of his experts, as well as the General Motors Engineer Ray Reske and the General Motors Corporation Counsel were invited. At this meeting, it was agreed that the new evidence obtained cast doubts on the identity of the deceased and that his manner of death should be presented to the Warren County District Attorney, with a request that the case be dismissed.
Despite Thorn’s well-substantiated presentation, the county District Attorney was unenthusiastic. He hired Dr. Michael Baden, the controversial former chief medical examiner of New York City, to review Thorn’s findings. Baden came to exactly the opposite conclusion: “The death was accidental.”
The District Attorney chose to accept Baden’s opinion. He decided that there had been no homicide, that the Baumis vs. General Motors product liability lawsuit would not be dismissed and would proceed as initially scheduled.
Thorn realized that in order for his theory of homicide to stand up in court, he needed a fire expert. Someone to convince the jury that it wasn’t a faulty carburetor that burned the man in the driver’s seat beyond recognition, it was an arsonist.
The final and pivotal points that the defense had to prove in order to win its case were:
- That the body in the car had been assaulted prior to the fire;
- That its jaw had been fractured;
- That the dead or dying man, as well as the brand new Buick in which he had been found, had been deliberately set on fire.
For a fire and arson expert, Thorn was referred to Charles G. King. King heads up his own arson consulting firm in New York City, after having spent 23 years with the New York City Fire Department as a firefighter and fire marshal.
After reviewing photographs of the burned car, King, too, concluded that the car had been “torched.”
It was now possible for the defense to argue two separate points of contention: One, that the body found in the car was a victim of a homicide; and two, that regardless of whether or not the jury chose to believe that the victim was murdered, the General Motors product in question was still neither defective nor liable, since the car had been deliberately set on fire.
In preparing evidence to be used in his courtroom presentation, King realized it would be difficult leading the jury through the cause and origin of an automobile fire investigation based on actual photographic evidence. “Reading” the fire path under these circumstances is difficult for even the most seasoned investigator. How could laymen be shown from these photographs the difference between rust and splatter marks of flammable liquid? That the direction of the flow of the melted glass would indicate the fire’s point of origin? That the low burning at the rocker panels is abnormal? And other subtle indicators found in the fire scene rubble.
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Photo courtesy of charles G. King Associates
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King suggested that the defense rely on large, colored graphics. Using the Graphic Line Department at the General Motors Engineering Center, drawings were made of the Baumis vehicle. The graphic illustrations were greatly enlarged and the original photograph from which the graphic had been drawn was attached to one. The defense chose to put both the photograph and the graphic drawing on the same posterboard to eliminate any possible accusations from the plaintiff’s attorney that distortions or misrepresentations had been made.
In Thorn’s direct examination of King, the arson consultant, with the help of the graphics, was able to “walk” the jury completely around an automobile that, in fact, was not even there.
King instructed the jurors about the basic elements of arson investigation. First, he explained that separate and distinct fires that do not communicate to each other in any way are always an indication of arson. Then, using the visual aids, King convinced the jury that the Baumis car had experienced separate and distinct fires:
- There was a fire below the carburetor and fuel pump area where accidental car fires do not start, as there is nothing to support combustion.
- There were clear and distinct splash marks of flammable liquid
- on the radiator support bracket.
- The lower radiator hoses, the lower fan belt area, and the engine mounts were burned. This burning all took place below the level of the carburetor, and since fire naturally burns upward, these fires eliminate the carburetor as a cause of the fire.
- All four tires were burned completely, including the pads.
- There was a fire underneath the driver’s seat; the manual angle adjustment melted and the seat fell back. There was discoloration of the metal of the driver’s seat indicating that temperatures reached at least as high as 1,600°F, another sign of arson.
- The roof was buckled over the passenger compartment, which shows that that was the hottest spot of the fire, and also points to flammable liquid in the passenger compartment.
- There were fires inside and outside the trunk, and the spare tire in the trunk was completely consumed.
- Fife burned down onto the bumper and down to the taillights.
King also showed the jury that the springs of the seats in the car were distended, which is evidence of an abnormally hot fire; and that all of the paint had burned off the car.
He managed to convince the jury that a carburetor fire, as with most other accidental fires, would have had to burn upward, and that since the fire in the Baumis car had burned downward, there was no explanation, other than arson, for the low and total burning.
Because the highly technical nature of the evidence was easily comprehended by the layperson, Thorn managed to build his case into a solid wall of credibility. He carefully selected forensic witnesses who not only excelled in their particular areas of expertise, but who also had the unusual ability to communicate this expertise with both clarity and conviction.
In lawsuits, just as in trick questions like “Are you still beating your wife?” there are always assumptions hidden between the lines of verbiage. The assumption is that the accused is, of course, guilty of something. Similarly, in the Baumis vs. General Motors trial, implied (if not stated) in the plaintiff’s lawsuit were at least four assumptions:
- That the deceased was alive at the time of the fire;
- That the fire killed him;
- That the deceased was the husband of the plaintiff;
- That a defective carburetor or defective fuel line caused the fire.
Because Thorn thought to question the first three implied assumptions and carefully selected a top-notch team of forensic experts to research and investigate these points, he was able to disprove the fourth and most incriminating assumption. In doing so, Thorn managed to clear his client of the product liability allegation and win what became a very emotional, dramatic, and suspenseful case.
After the jury in the Baumis vs. General Motors trial brought in a unanimous verdict in favor of General Motors, the body found in the car was exhumed.
At the time of the burial in 1973, the suspiciously cracked mandible had been placed in an evidence bag which was put in a box and buried along with the remains of the deceased. At the time of the exhumation in 1984, however, the box and the evidence bag were found in the coffin—but the mandible was missing. No explanation was ever given for its disappearance.