GM can tell ignition-switch jury about plaintiff ‘lies’

Erik Larson
Bloomberg News

The first trial over General Motors Co.’s deadly ignition-switch defect is about to take another twist.

On Thursday, the judge overseeing the case in Manhattan federal court approved GM’s request to present jurors with evidence that the company claims shows plaintiff Robert Scheuer, an Oklahoma mail carrier, and his wife lied on the witness stand.

The decision endangers the first of a handful of bellwether ignition-switch cases intended to help the carmaker and thousands of motorists in possible settlements and other litigation. Instead, the trial may end in disarray.

“Plaintiffs have only themselves to blame,” U.S. District Judge Jesse Furman said. Furman said he would have expected Scheuer’s lawyers to do a better job of vetting their client. He said Scheuer’s lawsuit may not work as a bellwether case and urged the sides to settle, “cutting our proverbial losses.”

GM seeks to use the evidence to show that Scheuer has a history of dishonesty and to undermine his primary claim that a defective switch disabled the air bag in his 2003 Saturn Ion in a wreck. The carmaker contends that the accident wasn’t severe enough to deploy the air bag, and that Scheuer’s injuries predate the wreck.

“If the GM allegations are accurate and the attorneys let themselves be conned by their client, it will be a huge embarrassment,”said Erik Gordon, a business professor at the University of Michigan who isn’t involved in the case. “They didn’t do enough checking on their client’s story.”

Scheuer and his wife, Lisa, both hired criminal-defense attorneys this week after the carmaker accused them of lying about why they were evicted from their “dream house” in September 2014, about four months after the accident.

The Scheuers testified the eviction was GM’s fault because Robert Scheuer suffered memory loss after the wreck and misplaced a check for a down payment. But GM said it found evidence they were evicted because their real estate agent discovered Scheuer had forged a check stub from his federal government retirement account as “proof of funds” to move into the newly built home.

The forged-check claim distracts from the point of the trial, intended to hold GM accountable for an admitted defect, said Robert Hilliard, the lawyer who brought the case. GM argues that the evidence speaks directly to the credibility of the Oklahoma couple.

The Manhattan jury, the first to hear a civil case over the deadly ignition-switch flaw, hasn’t been made aware of the new allegations, which the Detroit-based company said emerged after the trial started. Jurors have already heard almost two weeks of evidence, including depositions from GM engineers and details of how Scheuer’s car ran off an Oklahoma highway and smashed into a tree in May 2014.

GM recalled 2.59 million cars due to the defect and has already paid more than $2 billion in legal costs and settlements. The company is challenging liability in hundreds of individual cases.

According to GM, Robert Scheuer altered the original check by adding “$441” to the original amount, $430.72, making it appear to be $441,430.72. The carmaker said he also altered the date and used postal service stickers from his job to make it appear the check had been mailed, when it hadn’t.