Virginia Woman Revs Up for GM Ignition Trial

     MANHATTAN (CN) — The fifth attempt to hold GM civilly liable for its ignition-switch scandal caught a wave Monday as a federal judge cleared the way for a Virginia woman who wound up injured in a ditch to seek punitive damages.
     Stephanie Cockram blames a defective ignition switch not with causing her 2006 Chevy Cobalt to veer off the road on June 28, 2011, but with interfering with the deployment of her vehicle’s airbags after the crash.
     GM does not dispute that Cockram suffered severe injuries because her air bag did not deploy, but it denies that her car’s ignition switch was to blame.
     The auto giant first disclosed the existence of its ignition flaw in early 2014 when it recalled its 2005-10 Chevy Cobalts, Pontiacs, Saturns and other models.
     Hundreds of lawsuits have cropped up across the country since that time, accusing GM of knowingly putting drivers at risk of death or injury to save pennies on a fix to the problem.
     GM has estimated 15 fatalities “may be linked” to its ignition-switch defects, but the Center for Auto Safety attributes more than 300 deaths to the glitch.
     So far, however, few of the cases pinning blame on GM have held up in court.
     A bankruptcy judge found in April 2015 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 two phases of so-called “bellwether” trials, meant to determine the fate of thousands of similar personal-injury and wrongful-death lawsuits.
     Among the six cases scheduled for Phase I, four bellwethers before Cockram’s quickly fizzled out this year.
     In the first, from January, an Oklahoma postal worker dismissed his shaky allegations after the judge noted he “may have committed perjury and fraud.”
     A federal jury cleared GM of liability in the second case, involving a Louisiana couple’s whose Saturn Sky landed in a 15-car pileup on an icy Crescent City Connection Bridge during a winter storm.
     The family of a man who died in a fatal crash in Pennsylvania reached a pretrial settlement in the third bellwether case, and an Alabama resident unexpectedly decided to dismiss his claims before the fourth trial.
     With a trial of her case set to kick off on Sept. 12, Cockram hopes to turn the tide, and Judge Furman let her seek punitive damages Monday.
     In his 23-page opinion, Furman said “there is no dispute that New GM had a statutory duty to warn Cockram herself of safety defects and that it did, in fact, do so, both prior to the accident in 2010 (regarding a power steering defect), and after her accident in 2014 (regarding the ignition switch defect, albeit belatedly).” (Parentheses in original.)
     A GM spokesman declined to comment on the ruling, except to note that Cockram will have to prove her claims at trial.
     Cockram’s lawyer did not immediately respond to a phone call seeking comment.
     Scheduling of the 2017 bellwether cases is still in the planning stages.

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