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MDL Judge Orders Discovery in GM Recall Injury Lawsuits for Post-2009 Claims

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The U.S. District Judge presiding over all federal GM recall lawsuits has ordered the automaker to provide plaintiffs’ attorneys access to all of its documentation involving ignition switch problems that have been linked to hundreds of accidents and serious injuries, including documents provided to Congress as part of its investigation into why the company failed to issue the recall for years.¬†

In a court order (PDF) on September 19, U.S. District Judge Jesse M. Furman called for access to the documents and ordered discovery to proceed on personal injury claims linked to the defective ignition switches. The order relates only to auto accidents which happened after July 2009, when the company came out from under bankruptcy protection, as the courts continue to resolve the issue of liability for pre-2009 claims.

General Motors is currently fighting to have a class action lawsuit and other complaints involving incidents before the company reorganized thrown out in bankruptcy court before Judge Robert Gerber. The company also sought to delay the discovery process as that part of the litigation played out, but Judge Furman rejected its arguments.

“The Court finds New GM’s arguments unpersuasive in light of the fact that, whatever Judge Gerber rules in the bankruptcy proceedings and whatever this Court rules in the event that New GM files a motion to dismiss the Consolidated Class Action Complaint, the vast majority of the discovery sought will be necessary anyway,” Judge Furman wrote. “Moreover, delaying discovery would, in the Court’s view, reduce the willingness of courts presiding over related cases to coordinate their efforts with those of this Court and to defer to the schedule and orders adopted by this Court.”

In June, the U.S. Judicial Panel on Multidistrict Litigation established coordinated proceedings for all lawsuits filed against General Motors (GM) over the ignition switch problems, centralizing cases filed nationwide before Judge Furman in the Southern District of New York as part of an MDL, or Multi-District Litigation.

All of the complaints stem from General Motors recalls issued this year involving ignition switch problems on certain Chevrolet, Saturn and Pontiac vehicles.

At the time the litigation was centralized, fifteen actions pending in six different districts were consolidated to reduce duplicative discovery into common issues in the cases, avoid conflicting rulings from different judges on the same issues and to serve the convenience of witnesses, parties and the courts.

According to the latest update (PDF) provided by the U.S. JPML on September 15, nearly 100 additional cases were transferred into the MDL during the first two months. However, as GM recall lawyers continue to review and file cases, it is ultimately expected that several thousand lawsuits may eventually be centralized before Judge Furman.

The defective ignition switches have been blamed on hundreds of accidents nationwide, where the vehicles may suddenly shut off if heavy keychains are used or if the ignition is jolted, such as may occur in a crash. This may prevent the airbags from deploying, increasing the risk of serious injury or death.

Wrongful Death Claims

Originally, GM acknowledged that 13 deaths may be linked to the ignition switch recall, which was initiated in February and affects about 2.6 million Chevy, Pontiac and Saturn vehicles. However, the company now admits that at least 21 deaths were likely associated with the defective switches, which the company knew about since at least 2002 but failed to recall for more than a decade.

However, a GM ignition switch settlement fund set up by the company to compensate victims injured or killed in the recalled vehicles has resulted in at least 125 death claims by family members and loved ones.

Overall, the company has recalled more than 10 million vehicles this year due to ignition switch problems, but the settlement fund only deals with the 2.6 million in the initial recall. A number of GM lawsuits have been filed in different courts nationwide by plaintiffs who say the company is liable for injuries and deaths associated with those recalls as well.

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