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From Products Liability Law Daily, March 25, 2014

GM CEO and federal vehicle safety officials to testify before Congress; litigation against GM climbs

By Joe Bichl and Pamela C. Maloney, J.D.

The House Energy and Commerce Committee has announced that General Motors CEO Mary Barra will testify at an Oversight and Investigations Subcommittee hearing on April 1. The committee has also invited National Highway Traffic Safety Administration Acting Administrator David Friedman to testify on the same day. In the meantime, the number of lawsuits filed against GM and the company that manufactured the allegedly defective ignition switches continues to grow.

Congressional investigation. The committee recently opened an investigation into GM’s and NHTSA’s response to consumer complaints related to stalling, airbag non-deployment, and ignition switch problems in certain GM vehicles. GM recalled over 1.6 million vehicles in February to correct the problems, but reports indicate GM knew of the defects for a decade. The company has stated that the defects may have been linked to 31 frontal crashes and some 13 fatalities. Committee staff has reportedly been briefed by both NHTSA and GM on the recalls.  

“We look forward to hearing from both Mary Barra and Administrator Friedman. Their testimony is critical to understanding what the company and NHTSA knew about the safety problems, when they knew it, and what was done about it,” said committee Chairman Fred Upton (R-Mich) and Oversight and Investigations Subcommittee Chairman Tim Murphy (R-Pa). “The problems originated long before Barra and Friedman took the helms of their respective organizations, but their actions and input now, as our investigation proceeds, will be essential to getting answers about what went wrong. We want to know if this tragedy could have been prevented and what can be done to ensure the loss of life due to safety failures like this don’t happen again.”

Litigation developments. In addition to the putative class action filed in a Michigan federal district court on March 19 (Jaward v. General Motors LLC), a wrongful death action was filed March 24 in an Alabama state court on behalf of the Estate of Aubrey Wallace Williams, a 32-year-old mother of two, who was fatally injured when the ignition switch on her Cobalt failed resulting in a complete loss of power. As a result, the vehicle became uncontrollable and crossed into the opposite lane of traffic where it collided with an oncoming 18-wheeler log truck. The complaint in Smith v. General Motors LLC alleged negligence claims as well as claims under the Alabama Extended Manufacturer’s Liability Doctrine (specifically, that when placed into the stream of commerce, the vehicle was defective and that its defects rendered the vehicle unreasonably dangerous). The complaint also alleged that the vehicle was uncrashworthy and that GM failed to warn the driver, other consumers, or the public in general about the unsafe and defective condition and design of the vehicle.

In addition to General Motors, the complaint named Delphi Automotive Systems, LLC, the company that designed, manufactured, tested, marketed, and distributed the allegedly defective component parts, and Long-Lewis Ford of the Shoals, Inc., the dealership which sold the vehicle. In addition to wrongful death damages, the estate sought recovery of punitive damages.

Also on March 24, a putative class action was filed in the federal court in San Francisco (Maciel v. General Motors, LLC) on behalf of members of both a nationwide class and statewide classes of consumers who purchased or leased one or more of the following vehicles: 2005-2010 Chevrolet Cobalt, 2006-2007 Chevrolet HHR, 2006-2007 Pontiac Solstice, 2005-2007 Pontiac G5, 2003-2007 Saturn Ion, and 2007 Saturn Sky vehicles. Unlike the Michigan class action, the allegations in the Maciel complaint focused on violations of the federal Magnuson-Moss Warranty Act, fraudulent concealment, and various state unfair competition laws, consumer warranty laws, false advertising laws, deceptive trade practices and consumer protection statutes.

Attorneys: Jere L. Beasley (Beasley, Allen, Crow, Methvin, Portis & Miles) for Steve Smith, personal representative of the Estate of Aubrey Wallace Williams. Adam J. Levitt (Grant & Eisenhower), Roland Trellis (Baron & Budd, PC), and Lance Cooper (The Cooper Firm) for Galdina Maciel.

Companies: General Motors LLC; Delphi Automotive Systems, LLC; Long-Lewis Ford of the Shoals, Inc.

MainStory: TopStory NHTSANewsStory ProductRecallsNews DesignManufacturingNews WarningsNews MotorVehiclesNews AlabamaNews CaliforniaNews

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