By Jonathan Stempel
NEWYORK (Reuters) – General Motors Co <GM.N> on Thursday won a court ruling that could reduce the private litigation it faces over flawed vehicle ignition switches, which have been linked to 124 deaths and triggered a big recall.
U.S. District Judge Jesse Furman in Manhattan said the plaintiffs in two bellwether cases, involving accidents where airbags had deployed, could not introduce expert testimony to show how defective ignition switches might have played a role in the crashes.
The plaintiffs alleged that their GM ignition switches might have rotated from “run” at the moment of impact to “accessory” or “off,” causing the accidents or making them worse, and then back to “run” before the airbags deployed.
But Furman, who oversees multi-district litigation (“MDL”) over the ignition switches, including 213 cases where airbags deployed, called the testimony “unreliable” because there was no evidence that “double switch rotation” has occurred anywhere.
“The court recognises 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,” Furman wrote.
But the judge said his role is “to ensure the reliability and relevancy of expert testimony,” and the opinions of the plaintiffs’ experts “do not pass muster.”
Bob Hilliard and Tamar Lusztig, two of the lawyers for the plaintiffs, did not immediately respond to requests for comment. David Caldwell, a GM spokesman, had no immediate comment.
GM has already paid more than $2.6 billion in penalties and settlements, including $900 million to settle a U.S. Department of Justice criminal case, over ignition switches that could cause engines to stall and prevent airbags from deploying.
The largest U.S. automaker has recalled more than 2.6 million vehicles over the defect since February 2014.
As of Nov. 30, there were 1,723 unresolved personal injury and wrongful death claims in the multi-district litigation, including the 213 where airbags deployed, a court filing shows.
GM, based in Detroit, previously settled claims related to more than 1,700 claimants.
Thursday’s decision dismissed claims by Vivian Garza, who was 19 when her Chevrolet Cobalt crashed on an icy highway in Alice, Texas, in February 2011.
It also dismissed claims by the son of Ruby Greenroad over the January 2013 crash of her 2007 Cobalt in the Houston area, court records show. Greenroad died at age 90 the following year.
The case is In re: General Motors LLC Ignition Switch Litigation, U.S. District Court, Southern District of New York, No. 14-md-02543.
(Reporting by Jonathan Stempel in New York; Editing by Phil Berlowitz)