GM's Court Tactics Could Slow Injury, Death Lawsuits

GM's Court Tactics Could Slow Injury, Death Lawsuits Diego M. Radzinschi / NLJ Mary Barra, Chief Executive Officer of The General Motors Company, testifies before the Energy & Commerce Committee during an Oversight & Investigations hearing looking into the GM car ignition recall.

Although General Motors Co. has pledged to compensate the families of people injured or killed because of its defective ignition switch, the automaker has been in court trying to halt lawsuits on behalf of those victims.

Chief executive officer Mary Barra appeared a second time before Congress on Wednesday to answer questions about the defects, which have been linked to 13 deaths and prompted recalls of nearly 6 million vehicles. GM, turning to the provisions of its 2009 bankruptcy, already has sought to toss out dozens of class actions filed on behalf of consumers seeking economic damages. Those cases have been stayed until Sept. 1.

GM has said the bankruptcy proceedings won’t affect personal injury and wrongful death cases, many of which have been brought in state courts across the country. But during the past week, GM had successfully removed some of those cases to federal courts, prompting a separate judicial panel to bundle them with the class actions, now coordinated for pretrial purposes in U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York.

On June 12, the U.S. Judicial Panel on Multidistrict Litigation, which ordered that coordination before U.S. District Judge Jesse Furman, sent 64 additional cases to Furman’s court, followed by 15 more on Wednesday.

It’s unclear what effect the transfers might have on each individual case. But the immediate effect is to slow their progress as they get folded into a procedurally more complex MDL process. GM, meanwhile, has asked federal judges to halt discovery in some cases.

Bob Hilliard of Hilliard Muñoz Gonzales in Corpus Christi, who had two of his cases transferred, called GM’s tactic a “slick move.”

“I’ve instructed our legal staff to start objections,” he said.

Attorneys have seven days to object to the transfer orders, although the MDL panel is unlikely to rule on the matters until its next hearing on July 31.

GM spokesman Greg Martin did not respond to a request for comment.

One of Hilliard’s cases was brought on May 6 by the parents of Trenton Buzard, 6, who was paralyzed when the family’s 2005 Chevy Cobalt crashed on April 2, 2009. His aunt, 13, and great-grandmother, who was driving, died in the accident.

GM has asked U.S. District Judge Paul Diamond of the Eastern District of Pennsylvania to stay the case, which it removed from the Philadelphia County Court of Common Pleas.

Another plaintiffs attorney, Lance Cooper, has opposed the transfer of at least one of his cases. That case was filed by the parents of Brooke Melton, who died on March 10, 2010, when her 2005 Cobalt slid off the road and into a tree. The Meltons originally settled a case against GM last year—which has been largely credited for exposing the ignition-switch defects—but they filed a new lawsuit following this year’s recalls.

Cooper, founding partner of The Cooper Firm in Marietta, Ga., said GM improperly removed the Melton case to U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Georgia.

“It’s clear they don’t want to have to go back to the place where they were, given what they did,” he said. “Their intent in Melton is to delay it.”

GM has asked U.S. District Judge Orinda Evans to stay the Melton case.

Contact Amanda Bronstad at abronstad@alm.com.

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