United States District Court for the Southern District of New York.
United States District Court for the Southern District of New York. (Photo: Ken Lund)

A federal judge has tentatively ordered General Motors Co. to share documents it provided to Congress and government agencies with plaintiffs lawyers suing over its ignition-switch recalls.

U.S. District Judge Jesse Furman, overseeing more than 100 lawsuits coordinated for pretrial purposes in the Southern District of New York, gave the green light to limited discovery on Thursday, despite a pending decision on motions GM filed to bar most of the cases in light of its 2009 bankruptcy.

Furman, who took up discovery and other matters during a hearing on Monday, also allowed plaintiffs attorneys to file a consolidated complaint in the economic class actions.

Under Furman’s order, GM will turn over documents it already has provided to Congress, the U.S. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration or other government agencies. The company also must deliver documents given to Jenner & Block chairman Anton Valukas during his internal investigation into why it took GM more than a decade to identify the defect that prompted recalls of 2.6 million vehicles this year. The defect could shut down engines, disabling airbags and power steering.

“In the court’s current view, allowing for such limited discovery would serve to streamline and advance this litigation and would facilitate any settlement discussions at the appropriate time, without unduly burdening defendants or interfering with the proceedings before the bankruptcy court,” Furman wrote. He noted that some cases—those filed over accidents that occurred after 2009, for instance—would survive any bankruptcy ruling.

During Monday’s hearing, Furman also heard from plaintiffs lawyers seeking a leadership role in the litigation.

Both sides had agreed to stay discovery pending an order by U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Robert Gerber on GM’s motions.

On Friday, they submitted in bankruptcy court a set of facts about which they agreed. But there were several points of disagreement, including statements attributed to the Valukas report that GM said were incomplete or subject to attorney-client privilege.

Plaintiffs bankruptcy attorney Jonathan Flaxer wrote in a letter that discovery was necessary to find out what GM’s lawyers and other senior executives knew about the defect. In particular, he suggested deposing the senior lawyers GM fired over the defect.

“New GM generally declined to stipulate to proposed facts unless they were based on information in a deposition transcript, already in the public record created by the government investigations or stated in the Valukas report,” wrote Flaxer, a partner at New York’s Golenbock Eiseman Assor Bell & Peskoe.

But the Valukas report, while saying that GM general counsel Michael Millikin knew nothing about the defect until this year, also says “nothing about the knowledge possessed by the people who served as GM’s general counsel or general counsel of GM North America at the time of GM’s bankruptcy,” Flaxer wrote.

GM attorney Arthur Steinberg, a partner in King & Spalding’s New York office, opposed the discovery request.

A hearing is scheduled for Aug. 18.

Contact Amanda Bronstad at abronstad@alm.com.