Bellwether Case Set to Begin in GM Ignition MDL

The towers of the Detroit Renaissance Center, the world headquarters of the General Motors Corporation in Detroit, Michigan. March 30, 2010. Credit: RiverNorthPhotography/iStockphoto.com.

 

The litigation tsunami continues as another bellwether ignition defect case against General Motors heads to trial Monday in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York before Judge Jesse Furman.

Monday’s trial follows three others before Furman in the multi-district litigation. Dennis Ward alleges GM’s highly-publicized ignition defect caused his Chevrolet HHR to crash on South Kolb Road in Tucson, Arizona in March 2014, leaving him with a permanent leg injury.

Ward’s summary in the consolidated pre-trial motion said he saw a car ahead of him stop. He hit the brakes. They didn’t work. He tried to steer away. That didn’t work either. He couldn’t avoid the crash. His lawyers asserted that his car lost power because the ignition switch had turned off around the time he hit the brakes. Ward is alleging negligence and asking for punitive damages because “GM consciously pursued a course of conduct knowing that it created a substantial risk of harm to others.”

Ward’s legal team includes Nicholas Wise and James Bilsborrow of Weitz & Luxenberg in New York, Paul Novak and Diana Gjonaj of Weitz & Luxenberg in Detroit, and Robert Hilliard of Hilliard Munoz Gonzales of Corpus Christi, Texas.

GM’s trial team includes Mike Brock of Kirkland & Ellis in Washington, plus Brian Sieve and Renee D. Smith of Kirkland & Ellis in Chicago

GM denied all liability for the crash in the company’s summary included in the pre-trial order.

“To prevail, [Ward] must prove that his HHR was defective and that the defect caused his accident and injuries, which he cannot do. An ignition switch defect did not cause or contribute to [Ward's] accident or injuries,” the company said. GM further asserted that Ward could not prove his ignition switched off. Furthermore, the crash was his own fault for “following too closely, failing to pay attention to the roadway, and driving too fast for conditions.”

The judge has already cleared the way for Ward’s lawyers to bring up more than 50 other similar ignition defect cases. Those represent only a fraction of the lawsuits arising from the same switch. The lawyers will attempt to prove that GM employees knew about the defect and took no steps to repair it or warn the drivers of the cars in question.

Among the cases Furman ruled out as causation evidence is the one that discovered the ignition defect in the first place that was causing engines to switch off at highway speeds, shutting down power for steering, brakes and air bags.

Ken and Beth Melton filed the lawsuit that launched more than 1,000 others—plus 30 million recalls and $35 million in fines and fees against General Motors, now called new GM. Their lawyer, Lance Cooper of Marietta, Ga., hired an investigator who found the problem they said caused the crash that killed 29-year-old Brooke Melton.

Brooke Melton’s parents settled their initial lawsuit in 2013 for $5 million—a figure that was confidential but disclosed by GM in discovery. In 2014, the Meltons tried to give the money back and filed a lawsuit alleging fraud, after learning from a document produced for Congress that an engineer at GM knew about the defect and didn’t disclose it to the public or them—even in a deposition. The next year, they settled again for another undisclosed but higher figure, leaving the offspring plaintiffs to continue litigating.

The case is Ward v. GM, No. 1:14-cv-08317-JMF.

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