First Personal Injury Suit over GM Ignition Switch Begins

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Questions regarding GM’s liability for its ignition switch defect have long simmered. Issues have included liability questions due to the GM bankruptcy and questions regarding “Old GM” versus “New GM” and what was known to the company and when the information was known. While the company has released a number of public statements expressing regret including one by its CEO stating that, “The mistakes that led to the ignition switch recall should never have happened” its actions can only be characterized as a mixed bag of genuine human empathy and self-interest to protect the company and limit its liability. Consider the GM Ignition Switch Compensation fund, while publicly the company states the fund was formed due to a “determination to do the right thing both in the short and long term” funds of this type also protects the company. The compensation fund, also limits potential litigation costs and reduce the likelihood of significant jury awards against the company that could cause a litigation feedback loop.

However, not all claims have been extinguished through the funds or other legal maneuverings. In nearby New York, the first of six potential GM personal injury liability suits against the automaker began in federal court. The trial is widely believed to be a bellwether regarding a number of liability questions remaining in at least a few hundred suits over severe personal injuries allegedly caused by GM’s defective ignition switches.

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Lawyer for Plaintiff Argues that Faulty Ignition Switch Caused Airbag Deployment Failure

According to statements made by the victim’s personal injury lawyer, Robert Scheuer was the owner and driver of a 2003 Saturn Ion. Mr. Scheuer’s Ion was one of the models affected by the faulty GM ignition switches that were susceptible to being bumped or jostled out of place. When the switch moved out of place, a loss of vehicle power resulted. Typically this means that the vehicle would stall and the driver would lose power steering and other features dependent on the vehicle’s electrical system. This includes deactivation and non-deployment of airbags. Thus, the defect not only increased the likelihood of a loss vehicle control, but also the loss of power to the airbags likely exacerbated the injuries the vehicle occupants suffered.

In this personal injury matter, the attorney for Mr. Scheuer stated that Mr. Scheuer was driving his car when an apparently out of control black Ford Mustang caused Mr. Scheuer to attempt to avoid the vehicle sending his car off the roadway. The vehicle apparently traveled about 3.5 feet into the air before descending and hitting the ground in a grassy partially wooded area. The car also apparently hit into or off of two trees. The driver lost consciousness. Apparently two to three hours passed before Mr. Scheuer’s car was noticed. He was eventually airlifted to a hospital for treatment. The airbags in the injury victim’s car did not deploy.

Mr. Scheuer claims that he took precautions to avoid the ignition switch stall issue of which he was aware. As recommended by GM, he apparently removed all other keychains and keyrings from his vehicle key. He operated the vehicle solely with the ignition key.

 

GM’s Response to the Ignition Switch Personal Injury Allegations

In response to the personal injury allegations set forth, GM responded by stating that Mr. Scheuer never claimed that he lost vehicle control or power in the moments before the airbag non-deployment. Furthermore the company raised issues regarding Mr. Scheuer’s pre-existing health issues and his use of potentially impairing prescription medication the morning of the accident. The company also disputed the injury victim’s characterization of the amount of time that had elapsed from the time of accident to medical treatment. The further asserted that the airbags were not designed to deploy in an impact of this type.

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For a moment, let’s assume that Mr. Scheuer’s car did strike two trees as he claimed and the collision was roughly head-on. Assuming these facts, then the claim regarding no loss of vehicle control would essentially fall away. That is, the impact caused by the vehicle being launched to the air and subsequently striking the ground is likely to be sufficient to trigger the defect and result in airbag no deployment if the defect was routinely caused by as little as a bump or jostle.

However, the ultimate result in this matter, like any potential case, comes down to the law and the facts. Here, unlike earlier wrangling over liability, the law does not appear to be the main issue. Rather, the facts of the matter including whom the jury chooses to believe is where this matter will turn. This personal injury case shows the importance of clear communication and credibility in pursuing a personal injury matter. While the personal injury victim is framing this case as the foreseeable result of GM’s defect, the defense frames it as not being “a trial about whether or not GM employees made mistakes, errors in judgment.” Ultimately, the case will come down to whom the jury chooses to believe and which framework they buy into.

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