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Another Slippery Start for Ignition-Switch Trials

MANHATTAN (CN) - After a postman's lawsuit against General Motors recently evaporated, a second trial against the auto giant for an accident on an icy New Orleans bridge two years ago sputtered into federal court on Monday.

Louisiana residents Dionne Spain and Lawrence Barthelemy want GM to compensate them for a Jan. 24, 2014, accident on the Crescent City Connection Bridge.

That night, Gov. Bobby Jindal declared a state of emergency over winter weather before the couple's 2007 Saturn Sky wound up in a 15-car pileup over the Mississippi River. GM claims that treacherous road conditions caused the collision, but lawyers for the couple blame their car's faulty ignition switch.

The couple's car was among the 2005-10 Chevy Cobalts, Pontiacs, Saturns and other models that GM recalled two years ago, after reports that their defective ignition switches made them spontaneously lose power and disable their air bags.

Estimates by the Center for Auto Safety, which GM disputes, attribute more than 300 driver deaths to the defect, which would have cost pennies to correct.

While a national scandal grew, GM's legal team worked hard to mitigate their growing legal exposure.

A bankruptcy judge found last April that the auto giant's Chapter 11 reorganization to New GM shielded it from billions in civil liabilities, and federal prosecutors let the company pay $900 million to settle its criminal liabilities months later.

The only civil cases remaining involve collisions that occurred after GM's 2009 bankruptcy proceedings.

U.S. District Judge Jesse Furman divided these into several so-called "bellwether" cases, meant to determine the fate of hundreds of thousands of others.

In January, Oklahoma postal worker Robert Scheuer barely began the first of these trials against GM before before he voluntarily dismissed his allegations.

For the Louisiana couple's case, attorneys for both parties on Monday gave competing theories for where they believe "the rubber hits the road."

Attorney Randall Jackson, a former federal prosecutor here, invoked this expression to paint GM as irresponsible.

"This is a case about broken promises," Jackson told the jury.

Throughout his arguments, Jackson cited the company's internal investigation by former U.S. Attorney Anton Valukas. The probe, known as the Valukas report, reportedly found an 11-year "pattern of incompetence and neglect."

Jackson told the jury that a GM engineer would corroborate such findings for his client.

"The evidence will show that this was a problem the company was aware of for years without doing anything about it," he said.

GM attorney Mike Brock's arguments focused less on the company's general conduct than on the accident at issue in the case.

Showing the jury snippets of the plaintiffs' deposition, Brock said that Spain downplayed the toll of the accident.

"Yeah, it was just scrapes, but no dents or nothing torn up," Spain allegedly said, referring to the damage to her car.

According to Brock, Spain's treating physician attributed the accident to "black ice."

"She was not hurt," the doctor's report supposedly said.

Playing with her attorney's remarks, Brock said, "The rubber is not meeting the road in this case."

"The rubber is on ice," he added.

Witness testimony continues on Tuesday.

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