To say that the General Motors ignition switch recall and resulting legal action has not been without drama would be putting it mildly. Since initially recalling 800,000 of its small cars in 2014 due to faulty ignition switches which could shut off the engine during driving and prevent the airbags from inflating, the recall has swelled across all GM makes and models, eventually totaling nearly 30 million cars and trucks worldwide. Over 250 people are known to have been injured and 124 killed due to the defective switches. The expected legal actions against the automaker surrounding GM’s defective switches have swelled to the point that two class actions were filed against GM, as well as one mass tort. A mass tort is a civil action where many plaintiffs file suit against – in this case – a single defendant in order to trim crowded court dockets against the defendant and reach judicial verdicts quicker. And many mass torts can be folded into a single multi-district litigation (MDL) action, which is a special federal legal procedure which is also meant to speed the uniform process of handling complex cases like product liability suits. Since the first suits against GM were filed four years ago, there have been some interesting developments. The most recent occurred in late December 2017, when the federal judge overseeing the MDL ruled that plaintiff attorneys in two cases pertaining to accidents involving airbags in GM vehicles, could not introduce expert testimony to show how their specific ignition switches might have played a role in those crashes. But when reviewing the transcripts of the hearing, it appears the judge might have had more of a problem with the expert witnesses’ testimony of the condition of the switches, than the switches themselves. “The court recognizes that these conclusions may have a significant impact on a swath of cases now pending in the MDL and, thus, does not reach them lightly,” the judge wrote. He continued his explanation in saying his role is “to ensure the reliability and relevancy of expert testimony;” and in his view, “the opinions of the plaintiffs’ experts do not pass muster.” Other prominent events in the matter include the following:
- Also in the late December ruling, the judge tossed two Texas-based cases as not meeting the standard for continued inclusion in the MDL.
- GM has settled more than 1,700 of the thousands of claims filed against it.
- General Motors agreed to pay $120 million to resolve claims from 49 U.S. states and the District of Columbia over the faulty ignition switches.
- Before that settlement, GM had also paid more than $2.6 billion in penalties and settlements, which included $1.4 billion in September 2017 to settle a U.S. Department of Justice criminal case over the ignition switches, saying it “failed to disclose a deadly safety defect to its U.S. regulator” and “falsely represented to consumers that vehicles containing the defect posed no safety concern.”
- Early victories for GM included mostly favorable settlements in early bellwether cases and three early wins in 2016. But since then, there have been more defeats than victories. As of November 30, 2017, 1,723 unresolved personal injury and wrongful death claims remain in the multi-district litigation and class action suits, including the 213 where airbags deployed.
- Since 2014, GM has paid a $28,000 fine plus $7,000 per day to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) for not providing information it had requested regarding the defective switches.
- GM has also paid $35 million in fines to the Department of Transportation (DOT) for delaying the recall of the total number of defective cars.