After two straight victories in test trials over a deadly ignition switch defect in millions of vehicles, General Motors Co. (IW 500/5) settled a case that was set to go before a jury next month, avoiding potentially emotional testimony about the death of a father of five children.
GM’s confidential settlement with the estate of James Yingling III, a young Pennsylvania man whose life was cut short after 17 days in a coma, was revealed Thursday in a letter to U.S. District Judge Jesse Furman in Manhattan.
The trial over Yingling’s death in November 2013 was set to be the third of six bellwether cases, so called because they’re used to test strategies. A jury’s reaction to the evidence may push either side to settle -- or battle out -- hundreds of other cases and help set the size of any settlements.
“We are pleased this matter has been concluded, and proud of our client Nadia Yingling,” Victor Pribanic, a lawyer for the family, said in a statement after the settlement was announced. Nadia Yingling, the victim’s widow, was expected to testify at the trial, as was the couple’s eldest son.
Each side selected half of the bellwethers. The Yingling case was chosen by lawyers leading the suits against GM, who are among the top plaintiffs' attorneys in the U.S. It isn’t clear whether the settlement was inspired by GM’s victories or the potential for a company loss in a trial involving a fatality.
Earlier Trials, Different Outcomes
The first trial ended in midstream after the plaintiff, who claimed to suffer back pain after his car ran off an Oklahoma highway and hit a tree, was accused of perjury and abruptly dropped his lawsuit. The second trial involved a driver and passenger who suffered only minor injuries after their car spun and scraped a barrier in an ice storm. The jury sided with GM in that case, blaming the accident on bad weather.
Erik Gordon, a business professor at the University of Michigan Law School, said the verdict in the second trial showed that juries don’t believe a defective switch is automatically the cause of every accident, a legal requirement in such cases known as causation.
“Plaintiffs who assumed that juries would assume causation may be rethinking their cases,” said Gordon, who isn’t involved in the litigation. “Plaintiffs who can show clear causation will plow ahead.”
A GM spokesman, Patrick Morrissey, issued a statement confirming the settlement and declined to comment further.
According to the complaint, 35-year-old Yingling couldn’t brake or steer his Saturn Ion away from a culvert about two miles from his home after his power steering, power brakes and air bag failed as he drove to work at dawn.
Yingling’s death was one of the last known fatalities before GM warned consumers of the defective ignition switches and recalled millions of cars, years after the company had first been made aware of the problem. Until that recall notice went out, the family’s lawyers say, no one understood why Yingling had failed to turn when the road ended at a “T” intersection, leaving his car badly damaged and lying on its side in a ditch.
“This family did not understand what happened to him until after the recall. It was an inexplicable crash,” Pribanic said March 31, in an interview before the settlement was reached. After the recall, “we located the car and found the defective switch and had it tested. We found it was well below the specifications.”
Pribanic predicted GM’s earlier wins in the two earlier bellwethers wouldn’t affect his case. The first trial, he said, was “obviously completely anomalous” and would have no effect on his trial. The second trial involved very different facts, setting it apart, the attorney said.
“There’s a certain amount of gravitas associated with the tragedy that was not present in the other cases,” Pribanic said in the earlier interview. “The jury has to put a dollar figure on what it is to lose your dad in a violent tragedy like this.”
While the jury sided with Detroit-based GM in the second trial, it nevertheless agreed that the Saturn Sky at the center of the case was “unreasonably dangerous” as a result of the defect. The jurors said unanimously that the car deviated from the company’s performance standards and that GM failed to use reasonable care to adequately warn consumers of that danger.
Robert Hilliard, one of the lead plaintiff's lawyers in the litigation, said the details of the next trial will be discussed with the court on April 20.
GM has said top executives didn’t know the switch was a persistent problem, but in a Justice Department settlement the company admitted knowing about the defect by 2005 and concealing it from regulators from 2012 to 2014. The knowledge was established before the company’s $49.5 billion government bailout in 2009, and the concealment continued after its sale to “New GM” in a bankruptcy reorganization.
The company is separately awaiting an appeals court ruling in a group of lawsuits rejected as a result of the bankruptcy sale. GM argues it was shielded from the suits by bankruptcy law. GM was able to dodge the cases because the sale barred litigation against the “old” entity, even though the new one employed many of the same employees and executives.