New GM ignition switch trial underway

Detroit News Wire Services

General Motors Co. is back in court defending against claims it kept customers and regulators in the dark for years about a deadly flaw in its ignition switches.

The trial that began Monday in Manhattan is the second of six bellwether cases, so called because they are used to test strategies. The jury’s reaction to the evidence may push either side to settle — or battle out — hundreds of other cases and help set the size of any settlements. The first trial ended abruptly midstream when GM demonstrated the plaintiffs had lied about their finances. The carmaker picked the second case to be tried.

The new trial is focusing on a 2014 wreck on an icy New Orleans bridge. Plaintiffs Dionne Spain and Lawrence Barthelemy claim a defective switch prevented Spain’s 2007 Saturn Sky from avoiding a multicar pileup. GM argues the defect wasn’t to blame.

The plaintiffs’ lawyer, Randall Jackson, told jurors that the case is about a pattern of “broken promises by a broken company.”

“A car is a promise, two tons of steel with an engine, wrapped in a promise: safe transportation,” Jackson said. “The evidence in the case is going to show that GM, the company defending this case, broke that promise.”

GM recalled millions of vehicles in 2014 over flawed ignition switches that could move and shut off the engine, disabling the power steering and brakes and preventing air bags from deploying. Despite those admissions, GM is disputing claims over accidents that the company says weren’t related to the defects.

Jackson said the jury would be shown evidence that GM secretly carried out a redesign of the ignition switches without alerting the public or initiating a recall.

“It was a clear acknowledgment that GM knew about the problem,” Jackson said.

The trial comes after the jury in an earlier trial was dismissed after both sides dropped the case when questions arose about the plaintiff’s truthfulness. The trials are among six scheduled for this year.

At a recent pretrial hearing, U.S. District Judge Jesse M. Furman said the cases were important to define legal boundaries because about 1,700 personal injury and wrongful death cases remain to be resolved.

“A substantial amount of work remains,” he said.

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.