Canadian Manufacturing

After false start, new GM ignition switch trial begins in New York

Trial could have implications for hundreds of lawsuits surrounding automaker's sale of "flawed" cars

NEW YORK—At a trial aimed at aiding the settlement of lawsuits, a plaintiffs’ lawyer told a jury in his opening statement Monday that a General Motors faulty ignition switch was to blame for a 2014 accident on an icy Louisiana bridge, while a GM lawyer said the company was not at fault.

The trial in Manhattan federal court came just weeks after another trial meant to define legal boundaries for hundreds of lawsuits ended abruptly without a verdict.

The flood of litigation commenced when GM revealed that it had continued to sell flawed cars after discovering an ignition switch defect in Chevy Cobalts and other small cars. Since early 2014, it has issued recalls affecting more than 30 million vehicles.

The switches can slip out of the on position, causing the cars to stall, knocking out power steering and turning off air bags. GM says it has fixed the problem.

Randall Jackson, a lawyer for a man and woman involved in the accident on a busy New Orleans bridge, urged jurors to hold GM accountable, saying the car’s ignition switch contributed to the accident when she lost her steering and brakes.

But he spent most of his opening statement focusing jurors on the company’s failure for a decade to alert the public that it had identified the ignition switch defect.

He called it a “case about broken promises by a broken company.”

Jackson said his clients were seeking only a modest payout, and the most important part of the jury verdict would be a finding of what GM did and didn’t do and what his clients didn’t know about the defect.

The man and woman are seeking unspecified compensatory damages for the cost of medical care that they attribute to the accident, but GM lawyer Mike Brock said evidence will show they would have been over any minor aches and pains caused by the accident within days.

Brock also said he would prove that the January 2014 accident was caused by ice rather than a faulty ignition switch.

He said the occupants of the 2007 Saturn were wearing their seat belts, and the only damage to the car was some scrapes on a bumper.

“Every accident is not somebody’s fault. This accident is not GM’s fault,” Brock said. “This is a case about a car that didn’t even have a dent on it.”

At a recent pretrial hearing, U.S. District Judge Jesse M. Furman said five GM liability trials remaining for this year 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.

The company paid nearly $600 million to settle 399 claims made to a fund it established. Those claims covered 124 deaths and 275 injuries, though GM’s fund rejected more than 90 per cent of the 4,343 claims it received, according to figures the company released in December.

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