May 27, 2023

Plaintiffs propose blueprint to try GM defects lawsuits

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GM-Jesse-FurmanBy Amanda Bronstad, The National Law Journal

General Motors Co. could face its first trial next year over injuries or deaths blamed on an ignition-switch defect that prompted recalls of 2.6 million cars and trucks worldwide.

In letters filed on Monday, lead plaintiffs attorneys put forth the first proposed bellwether trial plan in preparation for a hearing on Thursday before U.S. District Judge Jesse Furman in the Southern District of New York. The hearing will focus on discovery in more than 115 cases against GM.

In the letters, the plaintiffs attorneys suggested that discovery begin in a pool of injury or death complaints, possibly 15, from which both sides would select bellwether cases. GM’s attorneys have resisted the plan.

Robert Hilliard, a partner at Hilliard Muñoz Gonzales in Corpus Christi, Texas, who is lead counsel in the injury and death cases, in an interview expressed optimism that a jury could be selected by November 2015.

“I’m going to just be sure the court understands we believe there is no impediment to doing that, and we can proceed on a fair and aggressive pace and get it done,” he said. “The value of a bellwether case is to determine the value of the entire [multidistrict litigation] docket.”

GM spokesman James Cain did not respond to a request for comment.

GM has acknowledged that 13 people died because of the defect, and that there could be more. On Monday, attorney Kenneth Feinberg, administering GM’s victim-compensation fund, increased the number of death claims eligible for payment to 23.

In court, plaintiffs lawyers are pushing for discovery relating to additional recalls over other ignition issues.

“We’re hearing reports that may not be accurate that people are still having stalls or issues with ignition switches after they’ve had the so-called repair, and so we want to find out if that’s happening,” said Steve Berman of Seattle’s Hagens Berman Sobol Shapiro, co-lead counsel for economic class actions against GM. “We also want to find out why it’s taking so long.”

GM has opposed that demand, citing in part the U.S. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s oversight of automotive recalls.

Berman has said the consolidated class complaint, which is due by Oct. 14, would address dozens of additional defects for which GM has recalled nearly 30 million cars and trucks worldwide this year. In an interview, he said there actually would be two complaints under the laws of all 50 states—one involving vehicles that consumers purchased before GM’s Chapter 11 reorganization, which are subject to a motion GM has brought in U.S. bankruptcy court, and one for those bought afterward.

“We can argue there’s not a single claim that involves an old GM vehicle in here that was sold while old GM was in existence,” Berman said of the latter case.

In court, Furman has approved a “reasonable, but aggressive schedule” of limited discovery of documents in cases that fall outside of GM’s motion. But he held off allowing depositions to go forward. Furman also rejected GM’s attempt to halt depositions of up to 15 people, including a former senior attorney, in a case in Georgia’s state court.

IMAGE: Jesse Furman. Photo: Diego M. Radzinschi/NLJ

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