The towers of the Detroit Renaissance Center, the world headquarters of the General Motors Corporation in Detroit, Michigan.
The towers of the Detroit Renaissance Center, the world headquarters of the General Motors Corporation in Detroit, Michigan. (RiverNorthPhotography/

Defense counsel for General Motors told jurors it was not a faulty part, but a run-of-the-mill fender bender partly caused by inattention to the road, that caused any injury suffered by the plaintiff as trial for the seventh General Motors bellwether ignition defect case opened Tuesday.

But the plaintiff’s legal team blamed their client’s leg injuries on a defective ignition switch that they say allowed a driver’s knee to knock the car key out of position.

Mike Brock of Kirkland & Ellis, in his opening statement in New York federal court, said the switch played no part in the collision.

“It’s just a rear-end collision,” Brock said of plaintiff Dennis Ward’s March 2014 accident in Tucson, Arizona. “Sometimes accidents just happen and this is what this case is about.”

But Nicholas Wise of Weitz & Luxenberg, a member of Ward’s legal team, said during his opening statement that his client’s 2009 Chevrolet HHR lost power because of a “knee-key” interaction with his ignition switch that caused the key to turn out of the “on” position.

The accident left Ward with a permanent leg injury, he said.

Ward, who was present in the courtroom and used a cane to move around, said that before the accident, in which he rear-ended a Ford Bronco during busy, weekday morning traffic, he tried both slamming on the brakes and swerving out of the way, each to no avail.

GM ignition switches have been linked to 124 deaths and hundreds of injuries and over the last several years has paid out more than $2 billion. An engineering flaw in its switches caused them to flip from the “on” position to the “accessory” position, which would cause engines to shut off and would disable power steering and antilock brakes.

An automotive journalist noticed the problem back in 2004 while test driving a Chevrolet Cobalt. In 2014, it admitted that the “423 ignition switch” found in some of its models was defective and issued a massive recall.

“Sometimes people were injured. Sometimes people died,” Wise said during opening arguments. “Sometimes the airbags didn’t go off when they should have. GM knew about it.”

But the ignition switch in Ward’s vehicle was a different model—the “190 switch”—that GM has not deemed defective.

Brock said during opening arguments that the ignition switch from Ward’s vehicle was found to be up to specifications.

“The car performed as it should have,” Brock said.

Southern District Judge Jesse Furman presides over Ward v. General Motors, 14-md-2543. This is Furman’s fourth GM bellwether case.

Ward’s legal team also includes James Bilsborrow of Weitz & Luxenberg in the firm’s New York office, Paul Novak and Diana Gjonaj of Weitz & Luxenberg in Detroit and Robert Hilliard of Hilliard Munoz Gonzales.

GM is also represented by Brian Sieve and Renee D. Smith of Kirkland & Ellis.

Regardless of GM’s fortunes in the Ward case, the automaker has recently been dealt some setbacks in the courts.

In April, the U.S. Supreme Court declined to review a lower court ruling that GM is liable for deaths and injuries that occurred before it filed for bankruptcy in 2009.

In June, Southern District Bankruptcy Judge Martin Glenn, who presides over GM’s bankruptcy case, found that plaintiffs may seek claims against the automaker that are unrelated to ignition switches.

Attorneys from Hagens Berman Sobol Shapiro, which also represents vehicle owners in litigation against GM, said in a release that Glenn’s ruling could increase the automaker’s exposure to economic loss claims in litigation before Furman.