Lawyer says GM, law firm conspired to cover up defect

Melissa Burden and David Shepardson
The Detroit News

A Texas lawyer representing plaintiffs who are suing General Motors Co. over its ignition switch has filed a motion accusing the Detroit automaker and its outside law firm King & Spalding of conspiring to cover up the defect.

Lawyer Bob Hilliard filed a motion Thursday in the class-action lawsuits consolidated in U.S. District Court in Manhattan seeking additional documents from GM and Atlanta-based King & Spalding, accusing them of “burying what they knew” and settling cases that could have shed light on the deadly defect.

The motion accuses King & Spalding of violating professional conduct rules after it learned of alleged “ongoing fraudulent concealment” regarding the ignition switch issue from GM. Hilliard wants documents that typically wouldn’t be disclosable under attorney-client privilege rules.

GM spokesman Jim Cain said the motion “is largely a rehash of issues discussed publicly over a year ago and previously reported in the media. Moreover, GM already has produced to plaintiffs substantial amounts of privileged material, including many of the very communications sought in their current motion. We strongly deny the accusations in the motion and will file an appropriate response.”

King & Spalding did not immediately comment.

The automaker learned of issues with ignition switches in older Chevrolet Cobalts and other cars more than a decade ago, but only recalled 2.59 million Cobalts, Saturn Ions and other vehicles early last year. The ignition switch, which can turn to the “accessory” or “off” position while driving, has been linked to 111 deaths.

GM admitted wrongdoing and paid a record $35 million fine to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration over the delayed recall. It faces investigations by the Justice Department, 50 state attorneys general,the Securities and Exchange Commission and Transport Canada. The Justice Department is expected to seek criminal charges against GM and may seek a settlement topping the $1.2 billion paid by Toyota Motor Corp. to settle a felony wire fraud charge.

GM CEO Mary Barra fired 15 and disciplined five, including many company lawyers, after an internal report blamed the delayed recall on a culture of incompetence and neglect. GM’s general counsel, Mike Millikin, came under withering criticism from Congress — as did its entire legal team — and he opted to retire.

The report found lower level lawyers kept large settlements from Millikin’s attention and he wasn’t informed of reported deaths linked to GM ignition switches. Employees told lawyer Anton Valukas — who led the GM internal investigation — that GM lawyers didn’t want them to take notes in some safety meetings.

dshepardson@detroitnews.com