Arizona Driver Revs Up Next GM Ignition-Switch Trial

GM’s Chevrolet HHR FlexFuel version (Photo by Mario Duran via Wikipedia)

MANHATTAN (CN) — On the heels of a Supreme Court defeat earlier this year, General Motors lost its bid to Tuesday to prevent an Arizona driver from seeking damages on ignition-switch liability.

More than three years have passed since GM recalled 2.5 million of its 2005-10 Chevy Cobalts, Pontiacs, Saturns and other models, amid reports that the company installed faulty ignition switches on the cars rather than spend pennies to correct the problem.

The Center for Auto Safety has attributed more than 300 deaths to the glitch, though GM by contrast estimates that 15 fatalities “may be linked” to the defects.

Hundreds of lawsuits against the automaker poured in across the country. After they were consolidated and divided into categories for multidistrict litigation in New York, U.S. District Judge Jesse Furman paved the way for several “bellwether” trials where one driver’s accident represents similar cases.

Few of these lawsuits have held up, however, and the successful ones have wound up at the settlement table.

The latest challenge comes from Arizona resident Dennis Ward, whose was driving a used 2009 Chevrolet HHR on March 27, 2014, when he rear-ended another driver in Tucson.

There was nothing Ward could do when he crashed into the Ford Explorer ahead of him, he says, contending that his “vehicle suddenly and unexpectedly lost power,” disabling his brakes and steering, on a rough patch of road.

Ward required hospitalization after he ruptured his patellar tendon in the crash, among other injuries.

Most of the ignition-switch cases against GM involve a 423 switch — which the parties concede was defective —  but Ward’s car had a 190 switch installed.

Judge Furman found that GM raised enough doubt about its liabilities over the latter switch to prevent the auto giant from averting trial.

“In the final analysis, the question of whether the 190 switch (and Ward’s switch, in particular) was defective is not just an issue in dispute — it is perhaps the central dispute between the parties,” the 29-page opinion states (parentheses in original). “And while there is certainly some evidence to support Ward’s position, he falls far short of showing that the evidence on the issue is ‘conclusive.’”

Furman also scoffed at GM’s denial that it had a duty to warn.

“If taken to its logical conclusion, New GM’s argument would suggest that, had the company learned as a result of its own internal testing that 2009 Chevrolet HHRs were prone to spontaneous combustion, the company would have had no independent duty to warn vehicle owners or to recall its vehicles,” he wrote. “That position is absurd on its face, not to mention inconsistent with both Arizona tort law generally and Winsor’s focus on the ‘causal relationship between the defendant’s acts and the plaintiff’s injury’ specifically.” 

Ward’s attorney, Diana Gjonaj from Weitz & Luxenberg, did not respond to requests for comment.

In April, the Supreme Court rejected GM’s appeal to block dozens of the remaining ignition-switch cases.

An attorney for hundreds of the plaintiffs told the Associated Press at the time that the ruling exposed GM to roughly 1,000 additional lawsuits and $5 billion to $10 billion in liabilities, an estimate that the auto giant called inflated.

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