GM ignition switch plaintiff drops case

Sophia Pearson and Erik Larson

The Oklahoma mail carrier at the center of the first trial over General Motors Co.’s deadly ignition-switch defect is dropping his claims after being accused of lying to the court.

Robert Scheuer, 49, will walk away from the case empty-handed, ending a lawsuit that was supposed to serve as a guide for hundreds of others against GM over the ignition switch, his lawyer said in a filing Friday in Manhattan federal court.

Scheuer had sued over claims the defective switch in his 2003 Saturn Ion disabled his air bag in an accident, leading to neck and back injuries. But the case collapsed after GM found evidence undermining several claims, including the extent of his injuries and details surrounding his family’s eviction from their “dream house” after the wreck.

“We had already started to show by strong, clear and convincing evidence to the jury that the ignition switch didn’t have anything to do with Mr Scheuer’s accident or injuries,” GM spokesman James Cain said in a statement. “The apparent lies the plaintiff and his wife told the jury ended the trial early, and we are pleased that the case is over without any payment whatsoever to Mr. Scheuer.”

The case was the first of six “bellwether” trials this year in a group of consolidated lawsuits that allege injury or death due to GM’s defective ignition switch. A few hundred injury and death cases related to the ignition switch defect are pending and the outcome of the bellwether cases could be used as a pattern for settlements in the remaining cases against the automaker.

U.S. District Judge Jesse Furman on Thursday granted GM’s request to show jurors evidence that Scheuer and his wife, Lisa, had fabricated the story blaming GM for their eviction about four months after the accident. The judge said the new evidence would probably be “devastating” to the case.

Detroit-based GM claimed Scheuer had doctored a federal-government check stub to provide “proof of funds” to move into the family’s new home. When the real estate agent found out, the family was evicted, the carmaker said. GM said the real estate agent had come forward after the trial started, and that the company had extensive evidence that it had nothing to do with the family’s financial troubles.

Scheuer and his wife both hired criminal-defense attorneys this week after the carmaker accused them of lying.

The case was chosen as the first for trial by Robert Hilliard and Steve Berman, two of the top plaintiffs’ lawyers in the U.S., who are leading the ignition-switch litigation. They haven’t denied the allegations of forgery and perjury against their client.

“To have any trial end in such an unexpected and unforeseen way is disappointing,” Hilliard told The Detroit News on Friday. “Especially one such as this where the concerns regarding the underlying safety of certain GM’s vehicles are legitimate and real. A jury’s decision regarding the existence of a defect will have to wait until the next trial.”

GM recalled 2.59 million cars in early 2014 because the ignition switch 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 knew of the problem for more than a decade before initiating the recall. An independent compensation program the company set up ultimately tied the defect to 124 deaths and hundreds of injuries. GM already has paid more than $2 billion in legal costs and settlements, including paying $900 million to the Justice Department in a deferred prosecution settlement following an investigation into the delayed recall.

Despite GM’s admissions, the company is challenging liability in hundreds of individual cases. The second trial is scheduled to begin in March and involves plaintiffs Dionne Spain and Lawrence Barthelemy, who are suing GM for injuries allegedly suffered in a Jan. 24, 2014 accident on an icy bridge in New Orleans.

Detroit News Staff Writer Melissa Burden contributed.