June 30, 2014 at 3:23 pm

Lawyers criticize GM compensation plan for failing to include punitive damages

Lawyers representing families of victims killed or people injured in crashes tied to General Motors Co.’s defective ignition switches said the compensation protocol announced Monday by Kenneth Feinberg will work for some clients, but fails to include punitive damages and leaves discretion solely up to Feinberg.

Jere L. Beasley, founding shareholder of the Beasley, Allen, Crow, Methvin, Portis & Miles law firm in Montgomery, Ala., said in a telephone interview Monday that GM should be paying more for claims given the length of time it knew of the defect. He said it is unfair for GM to escape wrongful conduct.

“The punishment factor also needs to be factored in,” Beasley said.

Feinberg, in a news conference, said the plan is to compensate people who have suffered because of the defect and not punish GM. He said those seeking punitive damages against GM can go to the courts.

Beasley wants a judge to oversee and approve the payouts, not Feinberg who is paid by GM.

He also said the plan places a great burden on claim filers to prove that the ignition switch defect caused their crash. He said many vehicles are gone and in some cases “black box” downloads that would show the ignition switch status were not retrieved.

Beasley, who is working with Georgia attorney Lance Cooper to investigate ignition switch defect claims and has filed lawsuits related to the bad parts, said there also are “legitimate” claims in which the air bags did deploy that should be allowed in the plan. Feinberg said only people involved in crashes in which air bags did not deploy would be allowed to seek claims from the fund.

“There are going to be so many claims that won’t be covered under this plan,” Beasley said.

Feinberg said in death cases, the plan will determine an estimate on lost wages and pay $1 million for pain and suffering, plus $300,000 to a surviving spouse and $300,000 per surviving dependent. The plan also will take into consideration extraordinary circumstances, he said.

“I think a lot of people will say for the deaths, for a young person entering the workforce, it’s totally inadequate,” Beasley said. He expects serious claims including deaths and injuries will have a much lower participation rate.

Texas attorney Bob Hilliard said he plans to meet with clients across the country in the coming days to discuss the protocol, lawsuits and clients’ next options.

Ken Rimer, whose stepdaughter Natasha Weigel died at age 18 following an October 2006 crash in a 2005 Chevrolet Cobalt with the defect, said the totals offered in the plan are conservative.

“I don’t think it’s anything we would consider at this time,” Rimer said in a telephone interview Monday.

Rimer said he and his wife Jayne will meet with their lawyer, Hilliard, Wednesday and may get more specifics.

“It’s somewhat of a starting point,” he said of the protocol. “I wasn’t impressed.”

Rimer said it is difficult to place a value on Weigel’s death and future wages. She had just graduated high school and was working part-time.

“She was just starting in life,” he said.

Beasley and Cooper also will be reaching out to their clients. Hilliard said many of his clients likely will enter the fund while they continue to pursue a lawsuit to see what award they might receive. If they aren’t satisfied, they will continue their lawsuits, Hilliard said.

The lawyers are pleased the plan will cover pre-GM bankruptcy crashes and will allow those who previously entered settlements with GM before the defect was known to enter the program to seek more compensation. Their initial award would be subtracted from a new, higher award.

They also said they expect to continue conversations with Feinberg on individual cases.

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