Lawyers suing General Motor Co. over its deadly ignition-switch defect may have overplayed their hand as a federal judge in New York threw out two more crucial test cases.
The plaintiffs failed to provide evidence that the specific type of flaw alleged to have occurred in two Texas car wrecks -- a double rotation of the ignition switch -- was anything more than a "theoretical possibility," U.S. District Judge Jesse Furman said in a ruling on Dec. 28.
The decision in the so-called bellwether cases is likely to impact other suits that make similar claims. Hundreds of cases remain pending over accidents linked to switches that could jostle into the off position -- a flaw that GM has admitted to, but argues isn’t to blame in the remaining suits. GM already paid almost $600 million to an out-of-court victims’ compensation fund.
In the suits dismissed on Dec. 28 the plaintiffs -- like many others -- alleged their ignition switches rotated off while they were driving, cutting power to steering and braking systems at critical moments. But unlike others, these plaintiffs claimed the switches rotated back to the "run" position a few seconds before impact, explaining why airbags were deployed.
The experts’ opinions that double rotation could occur, and did occur in each of the cases at issue, relies more on unproven statements and “speculation than it does on actual scientific or technical expertise," Furman said.
GM claimed the crashes occurred for other reasons, including icy roads. One of the victims was 89 years old and "suffered from benign positional vertigo," according to the ruling. Furman didn’t weigh in on the causes of the crashes.
"The ruling today reflects what we have always known about this category of cases: they are damn tough to prove in court," plaintiffs’ attorney Bob Hilliard said.. "But GM’s defect still may very well be the truth of the cause of the accidents."
The two cases were part of a second batch of bellwethers wending their way toward possible jury trials. The first batch was a mixed bag: four settled on nonpublic terms, while GM won three at trial and gained a pretrial dismissal. A plaintiff dropped another case after being accused of lying.
Furman gave GM and the plaintiffs’ lawyers until Jan. 4 to file letters regarding the next steps in the litigation.
General Motors recalled 2.59 million small cars in 2014 over defective ignition switches that have since been linked to at least 124 deaths. The company recalled millions more vehicles that year over additional flaws, including air bags, seat belts, power steering and other ignition-switch problems.
By 2015, General Motors had agreed to pay more than $2 billion to resolve legal claims over the ignition-switch defect, including $900 million to end a criminal probe by the U.S. government and at least $595 million through a victims’ compensation fund. The company since has paid out millions more in settlements with individual plaintiffs and their families over deaths and injuries.
By Erik Larson