(Photo: BriYYZ, via Wikimedia Commons)
As General Motors Co. seeks to fend off wrongful-death lawsuits and claims for economic losses arising from its ignition-switch defects, two shareholder actions are moving forward against its top executives, including chief executive officer Mary Barra, and board of directors.
During GM’s annual shareholder meeting on Tuesday, Barra said a compensation fund administered by attorney Kenneth Feinberg would begin accepting claims on Aug. 1 on behalf of people injured or killed in accidents linked to an ignition-switch defect. GM has recalled 2.6 million vehicles due to the defect, which can cause engines to shut down and disable power steering and airbags. GM also has moved in bankruptcy court in New York to bar class actions filed by its customers for economic losses tied to the recalls.
But in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan, shareholder lawsuits are forging ahead, seeking to pin the blame for the recalls on GM’s top leaders.
“The facts of the case will be that the company’s executives either knew about the need for a recall and the deaths, or were reckless in not knowing,” said Jeremy Lieberman, a partner at New York’s Pomerantz, which filed a class action on behalf of shareholders against GM. Also pending is a derivative shareholder action against GM’s officers and directors.
The shareholder allegations contrast with GM’s own account of its failures in handling the defects. An internal report released on June 5 blamed the problems on negligence by company engineers and lawyers, many of whom have been fired, and concluded that Barra and other top executives were kept in the dark about the problem.
GM, represented by Chicago’s Kirkland & Ellis, hasn’t responded to the shareholder lawsuits. Neither GM spokesman Greg Martin nor Eric Rosenthal of Detroit’s Barris, Sott, Denn & Driker, who represents the executives and directors in the derivative action, responded to requests for comment.
On Monday, GM moved to transfer the class action to U.S. District Judge Robert Cleland, an appointee of President George H.W. Bush who is overseeing the derivative action. GM asserts that the cases are related. On Tuesday, Pomerantz opposed the transfer, arguing they are not related. Even if they are, the firm insisted, they should go before U.S. District Judge Linda Parker, an Obama appointee who is overseeing the class action.
In the derivative action, filed on March 28, shareholders claim that GM’s officers and directors, by mishandling the ignition-switch issue, have cost the automaker billions of dollars.
“The individual defendants’ failure to timely issue the recall is inexcusable,” the suit says. “The slow but steady leak of information concerning the company’s failings has proved devastating for GM.”
The case names GM as a nominal defendant and 17 individuals including Barra, chairman Theodore Solso, and former chairmen and chief executive officers Daniel Akerson and Edward Whitacre.
The other defendants are GM’s directors, most of whom began serving on the board soon after the company emerged from bankruptcy in 2009. On Tuesday, two of those directors announced their retirements, and a third also stepped down. Another served as a director from 2003 to 2013.
The suit lays particular blame on the board members, most of whom sat on a public policy committee that oversaw management of safety issues.
Lead plaintiffs attorney Kevin Seely, a partner at San Diego’s Robbins Arroyo, declined to comment.
In the class action, four plaintiffs firms, including Pomerantz, began vying for lead counsel status last month.
Pomerantz filed the class action on behalf of shareholders who purchased GM stock between Nov. 17, 2010—the date of its $20.1 billion initial public offering—and March 10, 2014. That case, filed on March 21, claims that GM’s misstatements about the ignition-switch issue in financial reports leading to its IPO, and in the years afterward, resulted in “significant reputational and legal exposure” and caused the share price to tank, “wiping out billions in shareholder value,” according to the complaint.
“They also, every quarter, would report a product warranty liability balance, which included provisions for recall campaigns, and those we allege were understated because they should have included provisions for the recalls,” Lieberman said.
The suit also names Barra; Akerson; GM president Daniel Ammann; Alan Batey, president of GM North America; and James DeLuca, GM’s executive vice president for global manufacturing.
Lieberman said the alleged misstatements continue, citing GM’s insistence that only 13 people have died due to the ignition-switch problems. “There are a lot of unanswered questions, and we think the company has not been transparent with investors and the public, even in the wake of their ‘mea culpa,’ ” he said.
Contact Amanda Bronstad at email@example.com.