Family members of people killed in accidents attributed to General Motors' defective ignition switch gathered in Washington on April 1, 2014.
Family members of people killed in accidents attributed to General Motors’ defective ignition switch gathered in Washington on April 1, 2014. (Photo: AP / J. Scott Applewhite)

General Motors Co.’s legal troubles have shifted into overdrive, with plaintiffs lawyers insisting that drivers of recalled cars are risking their lives by getting behind the wheel.

GM, which has recalled 2.6 million Chevrolet, Pontiac and Saturn model cars over a faulty ignition switch linked to 13 deaths, faces multiple lawsuits plus regulatory fines. The scrutiny has left their owners, most of whom haven’t been able to get their vehicles fixed, wondering whether their cars are safe to drive.

“I personally have dozens of scared clients who don’t want to drive these cars,” said Robert Carey, a partner in the Phoenix office of Seattle-based Hagens Berman Sobol Shapiro.

The recalls are designed to fix defective ignition switches that could prevent air bags from deploying in accidents. On April 10, GM announced it also would replace the ignition lock cylinders. In its recall notice, GM assured drivers that their cars are safe as long as drivers remove all items from their key rings except the ignition key.

Critics question those assurances, especially since GM has acknowledged the defect could also shut off engines under “rough road conditions or other jarring” events. During hearings on Capitol Hill, Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., specifically asked chief executive officer Mary Barra: “Doesn’t that recall notice tell you that cars should not be driven?” Barra disagreed, citing scientific tests.

Plaintiffs lawyers aren’t convinced.

“Nobody should be driving,” said attorney Robert Hilliard, who seeks an injunction that would force GM to instruct customers to park their cars pending repair. “There’s simply not a safe way to drive them, because every city in the United States has potholes.”

Hilliard, of Hilliard Muñoz Gonzales in Corpus Christi brought his March 24 motion on behalf of a Texas couple who have stopped driving their 2006 Chevrolet Cobalt. In an April 2 response, GM called the request unprecedented. Its attorneys said the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration holds authority over recalls and that GM is offering rental cars to customers until their vehicles can be fixed.

“Plaintiffs have no evidence that the recall vehicles are unsafe to operate if drivers follow the instructions in the recall notice and remove all items from the key ring,” wrote Darrell Barger, a partner in the Corpus Christi office of Dallas-based Hartline Dacus Barger Dreyer, and David Balser, a partner at Atlanta’s King & Spalding.

U.S. District Judge Nelva Gonzales Ramos of the Southern District of Texas, who held a hearing on the motion on April 4, hadn’t ruled as of late last week.

In the Central District of California, a nationwide class action seeks an injunction requiring GM to notify customers that they’re entitled to rental cars pending repair of the recalled vehicles. The plaintiffs claim that GM has failed to inform its customers of the replacement option in violation of warranty laws in at least three states: California, Connecticut and Virginia.

“If you’ve made a decision to allow your customers to have a rental car, then you have to notify them all,” said Carey, whose firm brought the motion. “You can’t do it if they only come in and ­complain and ask for one.”

A hearing on the motion is scheduled for May 5.

GM, which has retained Kirkland & Ellis to handle consumer class actions, hasn’t responded to the motion. GM spokesman Greg Martin declined to comment on the litigation but noted that more than 21,000 cars had been loaned to customers affected by the recalls.

In a separate class action in the Northern District of California, plaintiffs moved on April 7 for immediate discovery of safety-related information. They claim the materials, including documents that GM has submitted to regulators and Congress, could show whether an injunction is needed to expand the recalls or remove vehicles from the road.

‘JUMPSTART THE PROCESS’

Plaintiffs attorney Lance Cooper, whose separate wrongful-death case against GM brought the defect to the public’s attention, said replacing the ­ignition switches wouldn’t make the cars entirely safe. “We know they’re not fixing the cars adequately, even if they do replace the switches,” said Cooper, founding partner of The Cooper Firm in Marietta, Ga. “We’re just trying to jump-start the process.” His motion will be heard on April 25.

Meanwhile, on April 8 GM was named in another lawsuit, this time by a driver who lost control of her 2007 Pontiac Solstice, which slid off a highway and slammed into a tree. According to the suit, filed in Harris County, Texas, District Court, the car’s airbags failed to deploy due to the ignition-switch defect.

“She lost her power steering and power brakes, which makes the car very difficult to control,” said Todd Walburg, a partner at San Francisco’s Lieff Cabraser Heimann & Bernstein who represents driver Tiffany Adams. As a result of the Dec. 23 accident, Adams broke her neck and had both legs amputated. Her parents are caring for her, Walburg said.

The suit also names the parent company of Delphi Automotive Systems LLC, which made the switch, and the Houston dealership that sold the car.

Federal safety regulators on April 8 fined GM $28,000 for missing an April 3 deadline to provide certain information. Officials are looking into why GM waited more than a decade to recall vehicles with known defects and have said they would levy an additional $7,000 per day until the company complies with the request.

Meanwhile, GM confirmed on April 10 that two engineers had been placed on paid leave as part of its internal investigation. Barra called it a “difficult decision” that comes “as we seek the truth about what happened.”Martin wrote in an email that GM has produced almost 21,000 documents. “We will continue to provide responses and facts as soon as they become available and hope to go about this in a constructive manner,” he said.

Contact Amanda Bronstad at abronstad@alm.com.