Judge to lawyers: Fight GM, not each other

Margaret Cronin Fisk
Bloomberg News

The judge overseeing lawsuits against General Motors Co. over a lethal ignition-switch defect denied a bid to remove the lead attorney for the injury and death cases, telling the lawyers to stop arguing with each other.

Lance Cooper had asked U.S. District Judge Jesse Furman to remove Robert Hilliard from the leadership of the litigation after the first trial against GM collapsed last month over claims the plaintiffs lied on the witness stand.

Cooper argued that Hilliard chose a weak case as the first to go to trial because of a conflict of interest.

Furman denied the request Wednesday, calling it “Monday morning quarterbacking” and advising the lawyers to focus on fighting GM rather than each other.

GM, the largest U.S. automaker, recalled 2.59 million small cars in 2014 to replace an ignition switch, which has been linked to at least 124 deaths. The ignition switch could be jarred into the “accessory” position, shutting off the engine, disabling power steering and brakes and preventing air bags from deploying.

The company recalled another 10 million vehicles in 2014 for a similar defect.

Most of the death and injury suits that followed were combined in federal court before Furman in Manhattan, who set six claims as bellwether, or test, cases for trial.

The first bellwether case to face a jury, brought by an Oklahoma mail carrier and his wife, fell apart in the middle of the trial. Robert and Lisa Scheuer, who claimed they lost a chance at their “dream house” because of a 2014 accident, dropped their suit against GM after the postman was accused of fabricating a check stub to buy the home.

It was “an embarrassing retreat,” Cooper said in seeking Hilliard’s removal last month. He said the loss of the first bellwether would affect other, better cases against the company. He had also sought to remove the other lead attorneys for the combined suits, Steve Berman and Elizabeth Cabraser, but dropped that request Friday, focusing solely on Hilliard.

While the automaker “may have ‘won’ the first bellwether trial, it faces 25 more trials (and counting) in the coming months, against a wide array of plaintiffs’ lawyers,” Furman wrote. “The outcomes of those trials in the aggregate will ultimately matter more than the outcome of any one trial,” especially one in which there was no jury verdict and that ended uniquely. To focus on the outcome of the first trial “is to miss the forest for a single tree,” he said.

Cooper didn’t immediately return email and phone requests for comment.

The multi-district litigation against GM “has received gold-level attention from the best attorneys in the country since its inception,” Hilliard said after Furman’s order. Cooper’s filings “were intended to distract those who are dedicated to successfully moving this litigation forward,” he said. “We will continue our fight.”

GM last year reached an agreement with Hilliard to set aside $275 million to settle almost 1,400 of his ignition-switch claims against the company. Cooper had asked Furman to reconsider his approval of a settlement fund for these claims, contending Hilliard’s resolution of the other cases promoted the interests of his clients over remaining plaintiffs.

Furman rejected that request as well. Cooper’s arguments against the settlement had “even less merit’’ than his request to remove Hilliard from leadership of the lawsuits. Cooper’s “claims of prejudice border on the frivolous,” he said.

“We’re pleased that the judge denied Mr. Cooper’s motion regarding the qualified settlement fund,” James Cain, a GM spokesman, said in an email Wednesday.