MANHATTAN (CN) -An Oklahoma postal worker who says the catastrophic failure of his Saturn Ion caused an accident in which he was severely injured, faced off against General Motors on Tuesday in the first trial over ignition-switch defects blamed for hundreds of deaths.
On May 28, 2014, mailman Robert Scheuer had been en route to Tulsa to pick up his paycheck when he swerved to avoid a Mustang in front of him.
His air bag never deployed even though he went airborne as the car went off-road and wound up with the bark of a fallen tree wrapped inside its bumper.
A helicopter airlifted Scheuer to a hospital, and he later needed spinal surgery.
“That is this man’s story, but this man’s story is not unique,” his attorney Robert Hilliard, a partner at the Texas-based firm Hilliard Munoz Gonzales LLP, told the jury.
To his attorney, Scheuer’s ordeal mirrors the hundreds of collisions resulting from a faulty ignition switch, but GM’s lawyer denied that the bug had any connection to the mailman’s accident.
Scheuer’s accident occurred a little more than three months after GM sent him a letter about their recall of 2.6 million Chevy Cobalts, Pontiacs, Saturns.
The letter advised him to use a lightweight keychain and to make arrangements to take his car to his local dealership to avoid safety issues posed by faulty ignition switches that cause some cars to lose power and disable their air bags.
The Center for Auto Safety estimated that the defect killed more than 300 drivers, though GM contends the death toll was far lower.
In 2005, the company averted most of its liabilities through a bankruptcy proceeding that created New GM and a deal with federal prosecutors that included a $900 million settlement.
The arguments Tuesday morning marked the first time any case in this flurry of litigation saw trial.
Addressing the jury for the first time, Hilliard aimed to put a human face to the mammoth litigation by introducing the jury to a humble family from the Great Plains sitting in the front row.
Scheuer sat next to his wife and two daughters, with the 5-year-old clutching two dolls during the proceedings.
Hilliard reminded the jury that their decision over the family’s potential compensation could hold “national significance.”
“Where else can a mailman from Oklahoma go toe-to-toe with a car company called General Motors and have his day in court?” he asked.
As a so-called “bellwether” trial, the verdict in Scheuer’s case will affect the outcome in a hundreds of thousands of consolidated cases involving crashes that post-dated GM’s bankruptcy in 2009.
For GM’s attorney Mike Brock, Scheuer’s claims against the company were a dead letter.
Questioning nearly every detail of the postman’s allegations, Brock argued that Scheuer avoided the ignition-switch defect by following the company’s advice to keep only one key on his keychain while driving.
He added that Scheuer’s air bag should not have gone off, and wouldn’t have protected him from the impact even if it had.
“Air bags present risk,” Brock said. “They present dangers to occupants, and their deployment level set by industry standard is set for the most severe accidents that occur.”
He acknowledged that other GM drivers experienced air bag problems associated with the ignition switched.
“GM did not come to court today to tell you that we were perfect,” he said.
He noted that the company fired 15 employees in the wake of the recall, including five of its vice presidents.
Since that time, Manhattan U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara praised how GM responded to its wrongdoing, while skewering the company for putting lives at risk rather than patch a defect that literally would have cost the company pennies.
Indeed, Scheuer’s lawyer noted at one point “there was plenty of notice and opportunity for General Motors to make what was a 25-cent fix.”
“You have to decide if this is what a reasonably prudent company should do versus promoting a cover-up,” Hilliard told the jury. “They viewed it as not a safety issue but a convenience issue.”
GM’s lawyer, on the other hand, veered away from the company’s general conduct to focus specifically on Scheuer’s case.
Brock even cast doubt on whether the Oklahoma mailman told the truth about his injuries.
While Scheuer insists he lost consciousness for three hours, Brock said: “We don’t believe that that’s right.”
Phone records from the period Scheuer allegedly went out show him repeatedly checking his voice mail, Brock claimed.
The lawyer added that Scheuer’s longstanding degenerative back condition had taken him on a “long downhill slide” long before his accident.
Scheuer complained of back pains requiring several rounds of medical treatment – including cervical injections and surgeries – nearly every year between 2005 and 2014, according to records displayed by GM.
“I’m not saying these things to pick on him,” Brock said. “I’m not saying those things to do anything other than to tell you those are the facts.”
Urging jurors to keep an open mind, Brock said that the company had a “strong case.”
Scheuer’s wife was the first to take the stand on Tuesday afternoon, followed by the plaintiff’s expert Chris Caruso, a former air bag engineer for GM.
His testimony continues on Wednesday.
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