The first bellwether trial chosen by plaintiffs to try to hold General Motors liable for defective ignition switches fell apart Thursday.
With lawyers for the automaker poised to present evidence that plaintiff Robert Scheuer and his wife, Lisa Scheuer, lied about his injuries following the 2014 crash of his Saturn Ion and misrepresented the financial consequences of those injuries, Southern District Judge Jesse Furman said he had to assume the couple had committed “a fraud on the court and on the jury.”
Furman told both sides that, given the new evidence and the weakness of the Scheuer evidence to date, “It might make sense to make this case go away,” and he urged settlement talks that began almost immediately.
“I don’t think it’s even a close call,” Furman said about admitting General Motors’ evidence that just came to light.
Furman allowed GM, set to begin its case Friday, to add two witnesses to its list:
Robert Kleven, an Oklahoma realtor who GM said would testify that Robert Scheuer apparently altered or fabricated a $441,431 check stub from the federal government’s retirement fund “and then texted a picture of the check stub to Mr. Kleven to induce him to allow plaintiff and his wife to live in their ‘dream house,’” even though Scheuer knew he didn’t have the money to close on the house. Kleven, GM said in court papers, reached out to GM last week after hearing a radio account about the start of the trial.
The second witness is a forensics expert who will analyze the authenticity of text messages and other communications and documents exchanged between Kleven and Scheuer that would undermine Scheuer’s claim of being incapacitated in the months following the accident. The papers note that, in addition to the judge and the jury, the 49-year-old mailman may have “misled his own counsel.”
It had already been rough going for Scheuer in the first of six bellwether trials, with each side picking three, to set the parameters for settlement of some 300 cases in the multi-district litigation.
The problem for the plaintiffs was that the Scheuer case was one they selected.
General Motors was forced to issue a massive and belated recall of cars in 2014 after it was revealed that the ignition switch could inadvertently be turned from the “on” to the “accessory” position, thus shutting down the car’s power steering and brake system and preventing air bags from deploying.
Scheuer testified that he got the recall notices and followed instructions to have only the ignition key on his keychain, but he still asserted ignition failure was the reason his air bags failed to deploy when he swerved to avoid another vehicle and crashed into the trees in Bristow, Oklahoma, on May 28, 2014. He claimed he was rendered unconscious for roughly three hours.
Scheuer claimed back and neck injuries from the accident, but he did not fare well on the witness stand, as he was grilled by GM lawyers about pre-existing back and neck injuries, including surgeries, going back over 20 years before the accident, and the fact that he made two calls to his voicemail while supposedly passed out behind the wheel of his damaged car.
Armed with the new evidence, GM lawyer Richard Godfrey, a partner at Kirkland & Ellis, asked for Lisa Scheuer to return to the witness stand to challenge her testimony on both the home loan and her husband’s injuries—injuries Robert Scheuer testified made him unable to recall anything concerning the loan transaction in the months following the accident.
“This jury is entitled to hear the truth,” Godfrey said.
With the truthfulness of two central plaintiffs at issue, the plaintiffs’ legal team, led by Robert Hilliard of Hilliard Munoz Gonzales in Corpus Christi, Texas, hired defense lawyers Charles Clayman of Clayman & Rosenberg for Lisa Scheuer and Priya Chaudry of Harris, O’Brien, St. Laurent & Chaudry to represent Robert Scheuer.
Furman declined to allow Godfrey to call Lisa Scheuer back to the stand, saying it would be “gilding the lily” and too “dramatic” given that GM could accomplish its assault on the Scheuers’ credibility with evidence already at hand.
Hilliard was chagrined when court finished for the day, saying “all lawyers in the case are learning of this [new information] in real time.”
“I think the judge is rightfully aggravated and he’s not the only one,” Hilliard said. “We’re trying to do what we can to represent Mr. Scheuer and take him at his word, and now we’re doing everything in our power to make sure nothing like this continues.”
When confronted with the new evidence, plaintiffs dropped their demand for damages on the home purchase, but Furman said the “belated” move could not work to their benefit given the fraud on the court.
After the plaintiffs had finished their case Thursday, Furman questioned why they would designate the Scheuer case as a bellwether, given that it was an “outlier,” a “post-recall accident” where all the keys but one were removed from the key chain and where the plaintiff had preexisting injuries.
“Those are just a few of the ways I suspect that this case is unrepresentative,” he said, adding that they “quite frankly make this case almost worthless for the purposes of settlement.”
He told the two sides, meaning the plaintiffs, to “take a very hard look at whether it’s worth it to see this case through to judgment.”
Furman said he stood ready to assist the parties in reaching a solution.