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General Motors (GM) faces the first of several hundred cases this week, involving claims that defective ignition switches in millions of vehicles caused airbags to fail to deploy during accidents, resulting in severe and sometimes fatal injuries.
Jury selection begins today in a “bellwether” trial before U.S. District Judge Jesse Furman in the Southern District of New York, where all GM lawsuits over ignition switch recalls are centralized for coordinated proceedings in the federal court system.
There are currently about 1,600 lawsuits pending before Judge Furman, each stemming from GM recalls issued due to a problems with ignition switches, which may cause certain Chevrolet, Pontiac, Saturn and other GM vehicles to suddenly shut off if a heavy key chain is used, or if the ignition is jarred, such as may occur in a crash. This has been found to cause airbags not to deploy, increasing the risk of severe injury for vehicle occupants.
The Bellwether trial involves a lawsuit filed against General Motors brought by Robert Scheuer, who indicates that the auto maker knowingly sold vehicles with defective ignition switches that deactivated the airbag when his 2003 Saturn Ion ran off the road and struck a tree in May 2014.
It has been revealed that officials at GM had known about problems with the ignition switches for more than a decade before recalls were taken to notify vehicle owners. The company was eventually fined $35 million by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA).
About 10 million GM vehicles have 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, and a number of individuals have continued to pursue their claims through the court system.
GM Recall Litigation
Since June 2015, all claims filed against General Motors throughout the federal court system have been consolidated for pretrial proceedings before Judge Furman 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 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, Judge Furman has established a bellwether process for scheduling a series of GM ignition switch trials in the MDL.
Scheuer’s claim is the first of those cases to go before a jury and is one of a series of scheduled bellwether trials designed to test how juries are likely to respond to evidence and testimony that may be repeated if a settlement agreement is not reached and the cases actually go to trial. The results of bellwether lawsuits are often useful in helping the parties reach such a settlement.
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.