The first pending lawsuit against General Motors Co. over a faulty ignition switch problem that led to thousands of accidents and at least 120 deaths over the course of more than 10 years has been dismissed. While GM has characterized it as a victory, plaintiff product liability attorneys speculate it will have no bearing on future cases.
According to The Wall Street Journal, the plaintiffs in the case exaggerated their physical and financial injuries to the court, something the defense has labeled fraud. Plaintiffs voluntarily dismissed their case, which involved allegations that the defective vehicle part disabled the air bags in his Saturn Ion in an Oklahoma crash in 2014, shortly after the vehicle was recalled.
In total, GM recalled 2.6 million vehicles for that defective ignition switch issue, in which the switch can slide out of the “run” position, resulting in a loss of power to the engine and other key safety features – including airbags. The Detroit auto maker is accused of having knowledge of this defect and concealing it for more than a decade while unwitting motorists and passengers continued to suffer serious injury and death.
Last fall, GM agreed to pay a $900 million criminal settlement following a federal Justice Department investigation that had resulted ind wire fraud charges after the company allegedly engaged in a scheme to conceal a deadly safety defect from U.S. regulators. The company will evade these charges completely so long as it overhauls its recall process by 2018.
Then in another plea deal, the company reached two civil settlements that resolved some 1,400 cases brought by victims’ families for $575 million. But not everyone affected took that plea deal. Some have chosen to continue pursuit of individual cases.
While it’s unfortunate that the first bellwether case ended in this manner, it’s critical that we not forget that this was a very real problem that robbed people of their lives and destroyed families. This was the first of six defective vehicle lawsuits that are slated to take place this year against the company as part of a multi-district litigation in a federal court in New York.
The WSJ reported the case took a turn when a real estate agent contacted the car manufacturer and informed them plaintiff had forged a check stub when he tried to purchase a home. That didn’t have anything directly to do with the crash case, but it meant plaintiff was no longer a credible witness, especially as both he and his wife had testified about the home purchase in prior depositions.
Attorneys for the couple said they were unaware of the issue until they were informed about it by the defense. Still, they contend that the underlying ignition switch problem is legitimate, even if it turned out this case was not.
Unfortunately, this does give GM somewhat of an upper hand because in multi-district litigation, each side gets to choose three cases to start. These cases set the tone for future claims, and represent some of the strongest and weakest cases that are pending. Because plaintiff’s first pick was dismissed, that means defendant gets the next choice. That case, which is slated for March, involves a group of passengers in Louisiana who were injured after sliding on black ice and striking a guardrail. After that, plaintiffs have chosen the case of a fatal accident to be tried next.
No doubt the outcome of these high-profile cases will be closely watched. Given the widespread nature of this and other recently-reported vehicle defects, injury lawyers should never overlook the possibility of product liability claims in a crash case.
If you have been a victim of a traffic accident, call Chalik & Chalik at (954) 476-1000 or 1 (800) 873-9040.
GM Ignition Switch Suit is Dismissed, Jan. 22, 2015, By Mike Spector and Sara Randazzo, The Wall Street Journal
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Cleveland v. Ward – Lost Income for Self-Employed After Crash, Jan. 9, 2016, Miami Vehicle Defect Lawyer Blog