Facing hundreds of personal injury product liability lawsuits over defective ignition switches, General Motors this year has faced down the first of thousands of these cases. Surprisingly, the company thus far has been fairly successful. The first three cases ended in their favor, with two of them dismissed (one after plaintiff was deemed not credible) and a third following a trial in which jurors decided the vehicle in question was defective and unreasonably dangerous, but it wasn’t the cause of plaintiff’s injuries.
Now, the company has chosen for the first time to settle one of these bellwether cases. That’s critical here because it could well determine how the company proceeds with other pending product defect lawsuits – particularly those that ended in fatality.
The auto manufacturer has recalled some 2.6 million of its small cars with the faulty ignition switch issue, which causes power to be suddenly cut from a moving vehicle. Not only is that especially dangerous because it causes a driver to lose control of the vehicle, it also shuts down critical safety systems, like airbags and brakes.
In 2014, the firm admitted that its employees had known for decades that these defective ignition switches could cause potentially fatal crashes. Yet not only did they fail to disclose this information, they actively hid it from consumers.
To date, G.M. has doled out more than $2 billion in claim settlements, including 124 wrongful death claims relating to their defective vehicles. The corporation has also spent billions in revamping its engineering and safety programs – which prompted a recall of some 30 million of its vehicles in the last two years for a myriad of vehicle defects. It was also made to pay substantial fines to the U.S. Department of Justice and U.S. Department of Transportation for concealing critical safety information from federal regulators.
In addition to the 124 wrongful death and thousands of personal injury lawsuits the company has already settled with regard to the ignition switch defect, there were 235 death and injury cases still pending.
The reason this case is so important is that it is the fourth of six “bellwether” cases in this mass tort claim that will determine how the rest will be carried out. Given that the first three did not go well for plaintiffs, this was an important win.
The first case was dismissed in January amid accusations that plaintiff had provided testimony that was misleading. In March, the company prevailed when jurors decided the ignition was faulty but it was not the cause of an auto accident that resulted in serious injury to the two plaintiffs. Then earlier this month, another case was unexpectedly dismissed by plaintiffs.
But in this fourth case, G.M. sought to avoid going to trial. This would have been the first wrongful death lawsuit against which the company would have needed to defend itself in court. The case involved a 35-year-old Pennsylvania man, a husband and father of five, who was killed in 2013 after losing control of his Saturn Ion. The defective ignition switch was reportedly to blame. Had the company lost the case – which appeared probable – the damage award would have been up to the jury, which would have had the power to impose punitive damages as well. That could have made it huge, but plaintiffs chose instead to accept the confidential settlement agreement, rather than take their chances at trial.
If you are the victim of Massachusetts product liability, call the Law Offices of Jeffrey S. Glassman for a free and confidential appointment — 1-888-367-2900.
G.M. Begins Prevailing in Lawsuits Over Faulty Ignition Switches, April 10, 2016, By Bill Vlasic, The New York Times
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