Lieff Cabraser Civil Justice Blog
Key in ignition

Deadly GM Ignition Switch Bellwether Trials – Overview and the Stakes

As the first GM ignition defect bellwether trial opens early next week, Law360 provides a case overview and analysis of the challenges facing GM. The cases arise in the wake of a now-notorious GM ignition switch defect that can cause car keys to slip from the run to accessory position, causing the vehicle to stall and shutting down its power controls and air bags. The defect affects over 12 million recalled GM vehicles, including multiple Buick, Cadillac, Chevrolet, GMC, Oldsmobile, Pontiac, and Saturn models. (You can view a detailed list on our GM Ignition Injury and Recall case page).

A bellwether trial is a case that the court and the parties select to test their arguments, with the goal of moving the overall litigation towards resolution. Bellwether cases generally have facts that are typical and representative of other cases in the wider litigation, and the outcome of a bellwether trial often informs the parties on whether they will continue to litigate or settle their claims, and on what terms.

The case in the first GM ignition bellwether was brought by plaintiff Robert Scheuer and involves the crash of his 2003 Saturn Ion and the GM ignition switch defect, which can cause car keys to slip from the run to accessory position, causing a vehicle to stall, and shutting down its power controls and emergency air bags. Scheuer’s case is the first of six such GM ignition defect bellwether trials that have been scheduled. Mr. Scheuer alleges he suffered substantial neck and back injuries from the crash because his vehicle’s air bags failed to deploy, and like many other suits in the MDL, he has made specific accusations about GM’s now-admitted knowledge of the defect since 2012.

As Law360 notes, Scheuer also targets the GM’s recall, saying the automaker is downplaying the defect even after admitting it to regulators. GM had insisted that its cars were safe to drive as long as the car key chains bore no extra weight, even though it allegedly knew of accidents that took place with unweighted fobs. Scheuer had followed GM’s advice when he got GM’s letter about the dangerous ignition defect, but he notes that his vehicle’s ignition switch failed him despite following GM’s specific instructions.

The trial comes after “a tumultuous one-and-half-year public relations crisis for GM,” states Law360, noting that “GM executives including CEO Mary Barra offered scrambling apologies while in the congressional hot seat as its attorneys plugged away in courtrooms to limit the legal fallout from the scandal.” As the first bellwether, Mr. Scheuer’s case may well set the tone for the outcome of the other cases. The outcome of the case could also have an impact on GM’s position on its recall policy.

Given that Scheuer’s accident occurred despite his claims of following GM’s updated safety instructions, a successful result in his trial could call GM’s overall recall response into question. According to his complaint, he suffered his accident on an Oklahoma highway when another vehicle swept toward him, forcing him to move off the road at approximately 60 miles per hour. His complaint further notes the car’s air bags failed to deploy when he crashed into two trees. After leaving the hospital he was left unable to return to work for more than five and a half months, and he still suffers significant complications from his injuries.

The multidistrict litigation the bellwether trials front began in mid-2014, with more than 100 suits, including injury and death cases. In August of 2014, Judge Furman issued an order appointing Steve W. Berman of Hagens Berman Sobol Shapiro LLP and Elizabeth J. Cabraser of Lieff Cabraser as co-lead counsel for the economic loss plaintiffs and naming Robert C. Hilliard a co-lead counsel for the injury plaintiffs.

An important additional issue in the cases is GM’s bankruptcy status post its 2009 Chapter 11 reorganization. After GM invoked the bankruptcy shield in 2014 to deflect mounting consumer lawsuits after its recall announcement, it initially received court protection shielding its old liabilities from “New GM” assets. Subsequent findings re-opened the issue of knowledge (and potential liability) carried by employees from Old GM on to its new incarnation.

Opening arguments are expected to take place late Monday or early Tuesday, with the plaintiffs slated to begin first. Learn more about the GM ignition defects and injuries lawsuits.