February 19, 2016 / 4:33 PM / 3 years ago

GM ignition-switch plaintiffs ask to revise early trial plan

NEW YORK (Reuters) - Lawyers for plaintiffs suing General Motors over a faulty ignition switch are seeking alternatives to a plan to try five more early test cases in federal litigation against GM over the issue, after a first trial fell apart unexpectedly.

The GM logo is seen at the General Motors Lansing Grand River Assembly Plant in Lansing, Michigan October 26, 2015. REUTERS/Rebecca Cook

In a letter sent Thursday to U.S. District Judge Jesse Furman in Manhattan, who oversees the cases, the lawyers said trying the remaining cases set for this year may not be the most efficient way to advance the resolution of hundreds of remaining injury and death claims. The faulty switch is linked to nearly 400 injuries and deaths.

“GM needs no assistance from a jury’s verdict to determine settlement value given its years-long disbursement of hundreds of millions of dollars of settlement monies to thousands of victims,” the lawyers wrote.

In a statement, GM spokesman Jim Cain said the company believed the current plan “remains the best process to inform settlement value for the remaining cases.”

GM has admitted that certain employees had known for years, prior to its 2014 recall of 2.6 million vehicles, that problems with the switch could cause it to slip out of place, stalling engines and cutting power to air bags, brakes and steering. It has paid $2 billion in related penalties and settlements.

In consolidated litigation over common issues, it is typical to try a series of test, or bellwether, cases to help assess how jurors value the claims. Furman had set six bellwethers for federal injury and death cases.

The first was dismissed mid-trial in January following allegations that the plaintiff lied on the stand.

That prompted one lawyer, Lance Cooper, to call for the removal of Robert Hilliard, who is leading federal injury and death cases. Furman rejected his request.

Given the highly individual nature of the cases, Hilliard and his co-lead counsel said they questioned the utility of trying all five bellwethers set for this year. While bellwethers are meant to help inform settlement talks, they said, much can be gleaned from GM’s earlier payouts.

Plaintiffs were exploring all options, given recent developments, Hilliard added in an email.

“Should we have obtained a billion-dollar verdict in the first trial, we would still be working on ways to resolve the entire docket, quickly and efficiently,” he said.

The next federal trial is set to start in March. Roughly 20 other trials are scheduled this year in state courts.

The case is In re General Motors Ignition Switch Litigation, U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York, No. 14-2543.

Editing by Bernadette Baum

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