Trial Selection Process for GM Igntition Switch Lawsuits Outlined in MDL

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As a growing number of personal injury and wrongful death lawsuits continue to be filed throughout the federal court system over accidents allegedly caused by defective ignition switches in certain General Motors (GM) vehicles, the U.S. District Judge presiding over the litigation has outlined the process for selecting a small group of test cases to be prepared for trial dates in early 2016.

Since June, all GM ignition switch lawsuits filed in federal courts nationwide 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.

All of the claims involve allegations of similar problems with recalled GM vehicles that feature faulty ignition switches, which may cause the vehicles to suddenly shut off if heavy key chains are used, or if the ignition is jarred, such as may occur in a crash.

If the GM ignition switch suddenly shuts off, this may prevent airbags from deploying, which many of the plaintiffs allege caused passengers to suffer severe, and sometime fatal, injuries in accidents.

U.S. District Judge Jesse Furman, who is presiding over the federal MDL, issued an order (PDF) on November 19, which outlines the process for selecting a group of bellwether cases that will be scheduled for trial to help the parties gauge how juries may respond to certain evidence and testimony that may be repeated throughout hundreds of other cases.

While the outcomes of any early bellwether trials will not be binding on other cases, they may influence eventual GM settlement negotiations for individuals injured or killed due to problems with the ignition switch, which resulted in the recall of millions of GM vehicles earlier this year.

GM Ignition Switch Bellwether Program

Although the federal MDL also includes economic loss lawsuits filed on behalf of owners of the recalled vehicles who claim the value of their vehicles has diminished, the bellwether selection process outlined by Judge Furman only involves personal injury and wrongful death claims at this time.

By February 17, 2015, Judge Furman indicates that each party must identify 9 cases for inclusion in an initial discovery pool, which can include cases stemming from accidents that occurred after July 10, 2009, when GM came out of bankruptcy. The 18 claims will then go through case-specific discovery in preparation for the first bellwether trials, which Judge Furman indicates will start in January 2016.

“For this bellwether trial plan to succeed, the cases selected as trial candidates must constitute a reprsentative sampling of cases in this proceeding,” wrote Judge Furman in the order. “To that end, the Court expects the parties to exercise good faith in selecting cases for potential inclusion in the Initial Discovery Pool, and not to select cases presenting unique or idiosyncratic facts or law that would render the results of these cases unenlightening.”

Each of the cases included in the initial pool must be filed before December 31, 2014, and plaintiffs must have completed an initial short-form fact sheet by January 16, 2015, providing certain details about their case. In addition, claims involving plaintiffs who have elected to take part in a GM ignition switch recall settlement fund established by the auto maker in August are not eligible for the bellwether program.

The fund seeks to resolve claims for personal injury or wrongful death stemming from a recall of nearly 2.9 million Chevrolet Cobalt, Pontiac G5, Saturn Ion, Pontiac Solstice, Chevrolet HHR and Saturn Sky vehicles manufactured between 2003-2007. The vehicles were recalled in February after it was revealed that the company had known about the defective ignition switches for at least a decade without taking action.

While the deadline for plaintiffs to elect to participate in the compensation fund was original December 31, the deadline was recently extended by the auto maker until January 31. Attorney Kenneth Feinberg, who has been hired by GM to administer the fund, indicated last week that the extension was being provided out of an abundance of caution, since many relatives of individuals who died in accidents involving the ignition switches may still be receiving the first notice that the accident was linked to a defective part.

Originally, GM said only 13 deaths were linked to accidents where airbags failed to deploy due to the defective switches. Now, however, the company says there have been at least 33 such deaths. That number has been increasing steadily since the company began processing settlement claims.

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