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GM Ignition Switch Trials Set to Start, With Evidence of Similar Incidents Allowed

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The first in a series of federal trials involving accidents and injuries caused by recalled ignition switches sold in millions of General Motors (GM) vehicles is set to begin next week, with the U.S. District Judge presiding over the litigation agreeing to allow the jury to hear evidence about similar incidents where ignition switches caused airbags to fail to deploy during a crash. 

There are currently hundreds of GM ignition switch lawsuits pending throughout the federal court system involving injuries and wrongful deaths allegedly caused by airbag problems in different Chevrolet, Pontiac, Saturn and other GM vehicles.

All of the claims stem from GM recalls issued in 2014, for defective ignition switches used in millions of different vehicles. Due to problems with the switches, vehicles to suddenly shut off if heavy key chains are used or if the ignition is jarred, such as may occur in an accident. As a result, drivers may lose control of their vehicles or airbags may fail to deploy in the event of a crash, increasing the risk of severe injury.

Shortly after the recall was initially announced in February 2014, it was revealed that some officials at GM had known about problems with the ignition switches for more than a decade, but the company had failed to take action. The company was eventually fined $35 million by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA).

About 10 million GM vehicles had been recalled due to ignition switch problems, and a GM recall settlement fund was set up by the company to resolve claims involving personal injury and death. However, the GM settlement fund only addressed problems with a subset of small cars, where GM has acknowledged that it knew about the problem, but failed to take action.

GM Recall Litigation

Since June, all claims filed against General Motors throughout the federal court system have been consolidated for pretrial proceedings in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York, as part of a Multidistrict Litigation, or MDL. The cases are centralized before U.S. District Judge Jesse Furman to reduce duplicative discovery into common issues, avoid conflicting pretrial rulings and to serve the convenience of the parties, witnesses and the courts..

As part of the coordinated pretrial proceedings in the federal court system, Judge Furman has established a bellwether process for scheduling a series of GM ignition switch trials in the MDL.

The first trial is set to begin on January 11, and involves a lawsuit brought by Robert Scheuer, of Oklahoma. According to an order (PDF) detailing the case on December 30, 2015, Scheuer was driving on a highway in Oklahoma on May 28,2014, when he says another vehicle drove him off the road. His 2003 Saturn Ion ran into two trees, but the airbag did not deploy.

Scheuer says he had received a recall notice from GM that replacement parts were being manufactured, and that in the meantime, he should take all other keys and items off of his key fob. He says he did so after his dealer told him the parts were not yet available. However, the airbag still did not deploy in the accident.

Scheuer suffered a number of injuries as a result of the accident, and his car was totaled. The lawsuit claims that because the airbag failed to deploy even after Scheuer abided by the key fob warning, GM failed to adequately warn him about the real risks of a lack of airbag deployment.

GM tried and failed to get the case dismissed, claiming that since the vehicle was made and sold before the company’s 2009 bankruptcy and reorganization, that “New” GM did not have liability for “Old” GM’s vehicles. However, Judge Furman rejected that argument in this case.

“In short, although New GM’s arguments are not insubstantial and the question is a close one, the Court concludes that, under the circumstances here, New GM had a post-sale duty to warn Plaintiff of the known ignition switch defect,” Judge Furman ruled in the order.

Furman has said that he will allow “other similar incidents” evidence to be presented, showing that this was an occurrence that happened to numerous GM vehicle owners. However, he said he will stringently vet any such evidence in pre-trial before it is allowed before a jury.

Scheuer’s claim is the first in a series of bellwether test cases scheduled throughout the year.

According to an Order (PDF) issued on December 14, a second trial is scheduled to begin on March 14, followed by additional cases expected to begin May 2, July 25, September 12, and November 14.

If the outcomes of these early “bellwether” cases do not spark the parties to reach a settlement agreement to resolve large numbers of claims, hundreds of other GM ignition switch complaints may be remanded back to courts nationwide for individual trials.

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