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The U.S. District Judge presiding over all federal General Motors (GM) recall lawsuits, involving problems caused by defective ignition switches used in millions of vehicles, has established the criteria for selecting groups of cases that will be prepared for early trial dates.
Since June 2014, all lawsuits filed against GM as a result of defective ignition switches have been centralized for coordinated pretrial proceedings before U.S. District Judge Jesse Furman in the Southern District of New York, as part of a multidistrict litigation (MDL).
There are currently about 167 complaints centralized in the GM MDL, which all involve similar allegations involving problems with ignition switches that may cause vehicles to suddenly shut off if heavy key chains are used, or if the ignition is jarred, such as may occur in an accident. This could prevent the airbags from deploying, increasing the risk of serious injury or death in a crash.
As part of the coordinated pretrial proceedings, Judge Furman previously established a bellwether process, where a series of GM ignition switch trials will be scheduled starting in early 2016, which are designed to help the parties gauge how juries may respond to certain evidence and testimony that is likely to be repeated throughout the litigation.
In an order (PDF) issued earlier this month, Judge Furman indicated that GM bellwether trials will be limited to three categories of personal injury or wrongful death lawsuits, which all must involve failure of airbags to deploy in a small subset of recalled vehicles, including certain Chevrolet Cobalt, Pontiac G5, Saturn Ion, Pontiac Solstice, Chevrolet HHR and Saturn Sky models.
In a follow up order (PDF) issued this week, Judge Furman further clarified three injury categories for cases that will be eligible for the GM bellwether trial plan. The first category will be limited to wrongful death claims involving vehicles with airbag non-deployment. The second category will include “severe personal injury claims” stemming from airbag non-deployment, which Judge Furman outlined in the order, indicating that the injury must prevent the injured person from performing substantially all of the normal acts of daily life or suffer a loss or limitation of a body function. The third category will include the remaining mild to moderate personal injury lawsuits against GM.
While nearly 10 million GM vehicles have been recalled in recent years due ignition switch problems, the bellwether process will be limited to a small sub-set of about 2.6 million vehicles recalled in February 2014. In those cases, federal investigators and an internal probe have suggested that GM officials knew about the risk of problems for more than 10 years, but failed to take actions to remove the vehicles from the road or protect the public.
Judge Furman has also declared that the bellwether cases must stem from accidents that occurred on or after July 11, 2009, which would put them after General Motor’s bankruptcy proceedings. The auto maker is currently seeking to have a bankruptcy court protect it from some pre-July 2009 cases, indicating that the “new” GM can not be held liable for the actions of the “old” GM, which ceased to exits after the bankruptcy.
In the wake of the recalls, a GM settlement fund was established for injury and wrongful death cases stemming from some of the recalled vehicles, which has received over 4,000 claims as of the January 31 cut off for accepting new cases. GM has indicated that it has approved payments for at least 52 people who died and 79 others who were injured as a result of airbag failures. While the auto maker continues to review thousands of claims, 501 cases have reportedly been determined by GM to be ineligible for compensation.