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From Products Liability Law Daily, March 31, 2016

Jury finds GM ignition switch defect made car unreasonably dangerous, but did not cause crash

By Susan Lasser, J.D.

In the second bellwether trial in the multidistrict litigation concerning defective ignition switches in vehicles manufactured by General Motors, the jury awarded no damages after it determined that while the ignition switch was defective, making the driver's vehicle unreasonably dangerous, the defect did not cause the crash in the case. This is GM’s second win in the MDL after the plaintiff in the first bellwether trial stipulated to a voluntary dismissal with prejudice of all claims against the automaker on January 22, 2016, following allegations that the plaintiff and his wife gave false or misleading testimony (In re: General Motors LLC Ignition Switch Litigation (Barthelemy v. General Motors, LLC), March 30, 2016, Furman, J.).

Accident. The driver and her passenger of a 2007 Saturn Sky, manufactured by GM, were injured when the driver lost control of the vehicle on a bridge where there was a multi-car pileup. The complaint filed by the driver and passenger asserted that the car stalled without warning and the driver lost control of the vehicle. The driver tried to apply the brakes to avoid the other cars, but claimed that the brakes did not respond and that she also experienced a loss of power steering in the car, causing it to crash. Both the driver and the passenger were wearing their seatbelts, but the vehicle airbags did not deploy upon impact with the other vehicles. The driver suffered injuries to her back and neck and the passenger suffered injuries as well requiring medical treatment.

Complaint. The plaintiffs’ complaint against the automaker noted that New GM (so named following bankruptcy proceedings) had admitted that Old GM had equipped model year 2007 Saturn Skys, including the driver’s vehicle, with a defective ignition switch that can move out of the "run" position, causing the airbags not to deploy. The complaint alleged that despite knowledge of the defect, GM failed to adequately warn the plaintiffs about the risk of harm and failed to recall the vehicle. The plaintiffs asserted that the ignition switch defect, which had been known to GM, caused the crash which led to their injuries and damages.

Verdict. The jury found that the plaintiffs proved by a preponderance of the evidence that the driver’s 2007 Saturn Sky was unreasonably dangerous because "it deviated in a material way from Old GM’s specifications or performance standards" for the vehicle. The plaintiffs also successfully showed that the Saturn was unreasonably dangerous because when it left Old GM’s control in 2007, the car "had a characteristic that might cause damage and Old GM failed to use reasonable care"—either when the car left the manufacturer’s control or upon learning about the defect—to provide an adequate warning of the characteristic and its danger to the driver.

However, the driver and her passenger failed to prove that the vehicle was unreasonably dangerous because there was an alternative design for the vehicle that could have prevented the plaintiffs’ injuries and that Old GM should have adopted that alternative design.

As to both the driver and the passenger, the jury answered in the affirmative the question of whether it had been proven by a preponderance of the evidence that there was actual damage to each individual plaintiff or property. Neither proved to the jury that the injury or damage sustained was proximately caused by "a characteristic" of the Saturn that made it unreasonably dangerous and existed at the time the product left Old GM’s control. Thus, the jurors never reached the question of damages.

The case is No. 14-CV-5810 [14-MD-2543 (JMF)].

Attorneys: Catherine Danielle Tobin (Hilliard Munoz Gonzales LLP) for Bob Abney. Andrew Baker Bloomer (Kirkland & Ellis LLP) for General Motors, LLC.

Companies: General Motors, LLC

MainStory: TopStory DesignManufacturingNews JuryVerdictsNewsStory DamagesNews MotorVehiclesNews MotorEquipmentNews NewYorkNews

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