Thomas family sought $73M in suit

Updated: August 17, 2004, 4:36 PM ET
Associated Press

KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- The family of former Kansas City Chiefs star Derrick Thomas is not entitled to any money from General Motors Corp. for the January 2000 crash that killed the nine-time Pro Bowl linebacker, a jury ruled Tuesday.

Thomas' mother, Edith Morgan, his seven children and their five mothers sued GM, seeking at least $73 million. They claimed Thomas was fatally injured when the roof of his Chevrolet Suburban caved in during the crash.

But the automaker's attorneys said during the monthlong trial that Thomas was driving too fast for the snowy conditions, and was ejected from the sport utility vehicle because he was not wearing his seat belt.

Thomas was paralyzed from the neck down. He died from complications 16 days later.

His best friend, Michael Tellis, who also was not wearing a seat belt, died at the scene. A third person in the vehicle -- who was wearing a seat belt -- walked away unharmed.

Michael Piuze, the attorney for Thomas' relatives, said he wasn't surprised by the decision.

"The problem with this case is that in the last four years since he got hurt, there has been an awful lot of publicity that Derrick Thomas was at fault, that Derrick Thomas was not wearing a seat belt," Piuze said.

Morgan, who started the "Buckle Up for Derrick" campaign soon after her son's death to urge Kansas City motorists to wear seat belts, said she was disappointed in the decision.

"We're going to be strong and fight the good fight of faith," she said. "It has been very, very tough to relive these incidents all over again. Even if they would have awarded something, it couldn't have taken the place of my son."

She said she would take her campaign to strengthen automobile roofs to other NFL cities where she frequently has spoken about the need to wear seat belts.

"I will tell NFL mothers I don't want any other mothers to go through what I've gone through," Morgan said.

General Motors attorney John Hickey said the ruling sent a message that drivers should wear seat belts and drive safely.

"All we wanted to do is defend our car," Hickey said. "I feel bad for the Thomases. Mr. Thomas, unfortunately, was driving too fast."

Two of the 12 jurors voted to award damages, including one who is a Chiefs season-ticket holder.

Copyright 2004 by The Associated Press