GM headed for ignition switch trial in January

Melissa Burden
The Detroit News

General Motors Co. will go to trial Jan. 11 in the first of six “bellwether” cases in a group of consolidated lawsuits that allege injury or death due to the company’s defective ignition switch after a judge’s ruling denied GM’s efforts to dismiss the case.

The automaker sought to have plaintiff Robert Scheuer of Oklahoma’s case dismissed, but U.S. District Court Judge Jesse M. Furman in the Southern District of New York said in a Wednesday ruling that there is enough evidence from the plaintiff to proceed with the trial.

Scheuer was injured after an accident in a 2003 Saturn Ion on May 28, 2014, in which he was forced off the road and crashed head-on into two trees. The car’s air bags did not deploy, according to court documents. Scheuer alleges that he suffered injuries because the air bag did not deploy and the non-deployment was due to the ignition switch defect.

The Ion was part of 2.59 million older cars GM recalled early last year for defective ignition switches that could slip out of the “run” position while driving, causing the loss of power steering and air bags not to deploy in crashes. The company admitted it knew of the defect for more than a decade before recalling the vehicles. An independent victims fund claims administrator hired by GM ultimately tied 124 deaths and hundreds of injuries to the ignition switch defect.

GM had argued in court documents that Scheuer could not show the ignition switch defect caused or enhanced his injuries and that the company should not face punitive damages. Furman disagreed with GM, writing “there is sufficient evidence to support several independent claims with respect to which plaintiff seeks punitive damages.”

The company also sought to have the case dismissed because Scheuer’s car was destroyed as part of a settlement with his insurance company, but Furman in another recent ruling also denied that request.

“We had argued that because the vehicle in question had been destroyed that it would be pretty hard for the plaintiffs to prove their case,” GM spokesman James Cain said Thursday. “The judge didn’t agree, so we ready for trial, and we plan to introduce evidence that will show that the ignition switch defect didn’t cause Mr. Scheuer’s injuries, and they didn’t contribute to the air bags not deploying in his accident.”

Texas attorney Bob Hilliard, who is representing Scheuer, said in an email to The Detroit News that a jury will be selected to hear the truth in the case.

“With this ruling finally, the last of GM’s ‘slip out of the noose’ efforts have failed. It can no longer dodge a fair and full jury trial,” Hilliard said in a statement. “There will be no reprieve. In one week, we will pick a jury and let 12 regular folks determine the fault in this case, and the fate of Detroit’s wayward and reckless corporate child.”

The six “bellwether” cases, including one death case, will be tried consecutively, with the final trial scheduled to start in November. A few hundred alleged injury and death cases related to the ignition switch defect are pending and the outcome of the six cases could be used for settlements in the remaining cases.

Scheuer had applied to the independent claims fund but his claim was denied, according to court records. The GM victims compensation fund approved 399 claims out of 4,343 received and a total of $594.5 million in compensation was offered to claimants.

GM paid $900 million to the Justice Department in a settlement reached in September that followed an investigation over the delayed recall. In spring 2014, the automaker admitted it broke the law and paid a $35 million civil penalty to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

The company faces investigations by the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission, Federal Trade Commission, 50 state attorneys general and Transport Canada. In an October regulatory filing, the company said it was aware of more than 100 economic loss cases in the U.S. and more than 200 cases alleging injury or deaths tied to recalls, with more cases pending in Canada.

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