GM Defective Ignition Switch Trial

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Jeffrey Johnson is a legal writer with a focus on personal injury. He has worked on personal injury and sovereign immunity litigation in addition to experience in family, estate, and criminal law. He earned a J.D. from the University of Baltimore and has worked in legal offices and non-profits in Maryland, Texas, and North Carolina. He has also earned an MFA in screenwriting from Chapman Univer...

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UPDATED: Jul 16, 2021

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Car FactoryA split decision in the first personal injury trial involving a defective GM ignition switch to end in a verdict gave both sides cause for optimism. The jury found that the faulty switch rendered the driver’s car unreasonably dangerous but also decided that the switch was not responsible for the accident that caused the driver’s injury.

Defective Ignition Switches

General Motors began installing an ignition switch in 2002 that, when bumped, can move from the “run” position to the “accessory” or “off” position. When that happens, many of the vehicle’s safety systems, including power steering, power brakes, and airbags, are disabled.

In 2007, GM changed the design of the ignition switch to correct the defect, but did not notify the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration of the problem or of the correction. According to NHTSA, GM concealed information during accident investigations that would have explained why airbags were not deploying in accidents involving cars that were equipped with the defective switch.

For about ten years, GM denied that any safety problem existed. It failed to warn car owners and refused to initiate a recall of the affected vehicles. Beginning in 2013, GM finally initiated a series of recalls affecting about 2.6 million Chevrolet, Saturn, and Pontiac vehicles that were equipped with the defective switch.

The Justice Department initiated a criminal investigation of GM’s actions, but made the controversial decision not to indict any GM officer. Instead, GM and the Justice Department resolved the criminal investigation by entering into a deferred prosecution agreement that called for GM to pay $900 million to settle the federal criminal charges and another $575 million to settle civil lawsuits.

As part of the settlement, GM acknowledged that the faulty ignition switch resulted in 124 deaths and 275 injuries. Families of those who died will each receive at least $1 million. Some accident victims who are not covered by the settlement (including victims whose claims were rejected) have opted to sue GM.

Multidistrict Litigation

Hundreds of personal injury lawsuits against GM based on defective ignition claims have been consolidated in a single federal district. At least twenty other defective ignition lawsuits are awaiting trial in state courts.

Federal “multidistrict litigation” rules allow federal cases raising similar claims to be consolidated in a single forum, with the expectation that the cases can be resolved more efficiently by selecting a few for an early trial. Those “bellwether cases” are meant to expose the strengths and weaknesses of the evidence on both sides and to give parties a sense of the defendant’s probable financial liability, thus encouraging settlement of the remaining claims.

The first bellwether trial was dismissed after GM produced evidence that the plaintiff lied when he blamed the accident for financial woes that resulted in his eviction. One of the first attorneys to expose GM’s defective ignition switch then filed a motion accusing the lead attorneys in the multidistrict litigation of mishandling the case. In particular, the attorney who filed the motion alleged that the plaintiff was chosen for a bellwether trial because he was one of the lead attorney’s clients, not because he had a strong case. Another attorney whose case was originally slated as the first trial contends that the lead attorneys moved his case out of the first position because he would not agree to allow a lead attorney to act as co-counsel during the trial.

Criticizing the motion as “Monday morning quarterbacking,” the judge denied the request to remove the lead attorneys. The judge also denied a separate motion to reconsider the court’s approval of a settlement of 1,600 cases that allegedly favored the lead counsels’ own clients at the expense of others.

A Win for GM

After those motions were decided, a second case came to trial. Following the procedure implemented in the multidistrict litigation, the second case (like the fourth and sixth of the six bellwether cases) was selected for trial by GM. Not surprisingly, GM chose a particularly weak case. Still, the outcome was hardly a resounding victory for GM.

The case was described in the press as a “fender bender” in which the plaintiffs claimed injuries. The driver alleged that he lost control of the car when it stalled. According to GM, the driver lost control because he was driving on an icy bridge during a statewide weather emergency on a night when thirty other vehicles in the same area were involved in weather-related accidents.

The jury found that the faulty ignition switch made the driver’s 2007 Saturn Sky unreasonably dangerous. The jury also found that GM failed to warn the driver about the car’s safety risks. At the same time, the jury concluded that the accident was caused by icy conditions, not by the defective switch. One of the jurors told a reporter that the ignition switch was obviously defective but that the jury was not satisfied that the car actually stalled. No damages were awarded since the plaintiffs did not prove that the defective ignition caused the accident.

The Future of Ignition Switch Litigation

What lesson should an outside observer take away from the first two ignition switch trials? The first lesson is that multidistrict litigation does not always work in the way that the law intends. Apart from the squabbling among attorneys that consolidation sometimes promotes, bellwether cases are meant to be representative of all cases, and neither of the first two cases were. Unlike the plaintiffs in the first case, most plaintiffs will not lie about their circumstances. Unlike the accident in the second case, most accidents allegedly caused by the faulty ignition switch did not occur during ice storms.

Still, it is telling that the jury in the second trial found that GM knowingly sold unreasonably dangerous vehicles and failed to warn consumers of the danger. Even if the plaintiffs in that case were injured for other reasons, the jury’s findings should give GM reason to fear that juries in future cases will return substantial verdicts in favor of accident victims who were injured while driving cars with faulty ignition switches.

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