By Margaret Cronin Fisk and Laurel Brubaker Calkins
General Motors Co.’s victory in a Houston courtroom Thursday makes the carmaker three for three in trials related to an ignition-switch defect, but its legal entanglements may stretch on for years.
At least a dozen lawsuits are set for trial in the next year, according to court records. The next trial begins Sept. 12 in New York federal court in a lawsuit over the 2011 crash of a Chevrolet Cobalt in Virginia. The company also faces lawsuits by car owners claiming economic losses because of the reduced value of their vehicles.
In the Texas case, a jury of eight women and four men in state court took about an hour to reach its decision following a three-week trial. They determined that GM wasn’t liable for a 2011 accident that left Zach Stevens, then 19, with a brain injury after his 2007 Saturn Sky careened out of control on a rain-slick road and hit a pickup, killing the driver.
In 2014, GM recalled 2.6 million U.S. cars with ignition switches in danger of jostling off. Once the switch came off, the cars lost power and safety systems such as power steering, power brakes, air bags and seat belts were prevented from working as designed. The defect has been linked to at least 124 deaths and 275 injuries.
Jurors heard GM Chief Executive Officer Mary Barra testify by video that the company’s failure to properly classify the ignition flaw as a safety defect –- which would’ve triggered a mass recall –- was part of a “series of mistakes” that had “tragic consequences,” including some deaths.
But jurors weren’t convinced that Stevens’s accident was directly related to the ignition-switch defect. Plaintiffs’ credibility was questioned when they provided the wrong car key as evidence.
Flaws like that mean GM’s three wins so far won’t have much effect on the claims remaining, said plaintiff’s attorney Bob Langdon, who represents multiple accident victims suing the automaker.
In one case, a federal jury in March blamed a New Orleans crash on a freak ice storm rather than a faulty ignition switch. The first trial fell apart before it went to a verdict when the plaintiffs were caught in a lie.
“People keep trying these cases where their client gets caught in a lie,’’ Langdon said. “You are not going to win those cases.’’
In addition, the two jury victories came in trials led by lawyers who aren’t experienced in auto-defect cases. Many of the remaining claims are being pursued by product-defect specialists.
“I’d like to see what happens in a very solid case with very experienced lawyers,’’ said Carl Tobias, a law professor at the University of Richmond in Virginia.
GM shares rose less than 1 percent to $31.66 at 10:25 a.m. in New York on Friday.
Often with product-defect cases, the first claims are won by the defense, then the pattern flips, Tobias said. The plaintiffs’ lawyers “become more educated over time,’’ he said. “They figure out what they’re doing wrong. It turns and the defense gets serious over settlement talks.’’
The number of lawsuits claiming ignition switch failures caused deaths or injuries continues to grow. Last month, a federal appeals court in Manhattan ruled GM had to face even more, by reversing a decision dismissing suits over accidents before the company emerged from bankruptcy in 2009.
‘Hate of GM’
GM may have a tougher time winning cases in the future judging by the post-trial comments of jurors in the Texas case.
“There was some hate of GM in the room,” said juror Deanna Harner, a 43-year-old corporate finance executive who said it was “pretty despicable” the carmaker knew about the defect but failed to warn customers.
Walter Kimble, a 58-year-old home inspector, said Stevens’s lawyers didn’t give him “anything I could work with.”
“I held my nose and did my job,” Kimble said. “I wanted so desperately to make that young man a millionaire.”
By Bloomberg Technology