Mailman vs. GM: 1st ignition switch trial underway

Larry Neumeister
Associated Press

New York — In the first trial of its kind, a Manhattan jury listened Tuesday as a lawyer for an Oklahoma man blamed his client’s injuries in a 2014 crash on a General Motors’ faulty ignition switch before a GM attorney countered that the switch was not to blame.

The crash of Robert S. Scheuer’s 2003 Saturn Ion on a rural road is the focus of a civil trial designed to define legal boundaries for the resolution of hundreds of other lawsuits stemming from the automaker’s failure to recall millions of faulty ignition switches for more than a decade. Five more trials are scheduled to occur this year in federal court.

Since early 2014, GM has issued recalls affecting more than 30 million vehicles. The recalls came long after GM learned of the ignition switch defect in Chevy Cobalts and other small cars. The switches can slip out of the “on” position, causing the cars to stall, knocking out power steering and turning off air bags.

Attorney Bob Hilliard introduced Scheuer; his wife, Lisa; and their smiling daughters, ages 5 and 11; who clutched dolls as the family stood before the jury.

“Where else can a mailman from Oklahoma go toe-to-toe with a car company called General Motors and have his day in court?” Hilliard asked.

He recounted numerous people killed in accidents blamed on defective switches and blamed GM for its slow response.

“There was plenty of notice and opportunity for General Motors to make what was a 25-cent fix,” he said.

In his opening, GM attorney Mike Brock insisted General Motors was not to blame for Scheuer’s accident and suggested the Tulsa, Oklahoma, resident was not honest.

He said Scheuer claimed he was knocked unconscious for three hours after the May 28, 2014, accident and yet cellphone records reflected two calls to his voicemail during the span.

“I don’t know where Mr. Scheuer was, but I don’t think he was unconscious,” Brock said.

He said some investigators questioned Scheuer’s claim he was run off the road by another car before his ignition switch malfunctioned, causing air bags to fail to deploy when he struck two trees.

Brock said the investigators concluded his car veered off the road gradually rather than abruptly, the way it would if he fell asleep.

The lawyer said Scheuer had a two-decade history of surgeries and pain medication prescriptions for spinal issues.

Brock said the car’s air bags were not designed to inflate in Scheuer’s accident, which featured a 31/2-foot-vertical drop. He said air bags deploy only in the most serious accidents.

Brock cautioned jurors the trial pertained to Scheuer’s claims alone. He noted the company was compensating victims and had boosted safety programs.

“GM does not come to court today to tell you that we were perfect,” he said. “There were mistakes and errors in judgment.”

In September, GM announced it had reached a deal to settle 1,385 death and injury cases for $275 million and a class-action shareholders’ lawsuit for $300 million.