As the first bellwether trial approached in sprawling litigation over General Motors Co.’s liability for selling defective ignition switches, the auto giant’s defense lawyers, led by Kirkland & Ellis’ Richard Godfrey and Robert “Mike” Brock, had a plan for undercutting plaintiff Robert Scheuer’s claims.
During opening statements on Jan. 12, Brock told a federal jury in Manhattan that GM would show that Scheuer, a 49-year-old postal worker, had overplayed the extent of his injuries following a crash in his Saturn Ion in 2014, after GM announced a massive recall in February of that year.
But the defense team also had an ace in the hole, discovered late in the case: a disgruntled Oklahoma realtor whose testimony promised to completely undermine Scheuer’s credibility.
By Jan. 21, with the defense team poised to unleash that evidence before the jury, the case abruptly fell apart.
A key moment in the case’s unraveling—unbeknownst to the plaintiffs—was Jan. 11, when Oklahoma realtor Robert Kleven reached out to GM after hearing a radio report on the trial. Kleven, who had encountered Scheuer in a 2014 real estate deal, told GM that at least one story the plaintiff was telling—that his car accident strapped his family’s finances and prevented them from closing on the home purchase—wasn’t true.
Kleven said he had records showing that Scheuer doctored a check stub from his federal government retirement fund in connection with the attempted home purchase. GM’s defense team, led by Godfrey and Brock, deployed a forensics expert to analyze the check stub. Then, on Jan. 18, they asked the court to revise their list of witnesses to include both Kleven and the forensics expert. They also sought to bring Lisa Scheuer back onto the stand for further cross-examination.
From the start, Scheuer’s case was an outlier among the bellwethers—four other cases also made personal injury or wrongful death claims, but they related to accidents that took place before GM’s recall. The other bellwether is a class action in which car owners allege that the recall diminished their vehicles’ resale value.
Brock, a former chair of Covington & Burling’s product liability and mass tort practice, served as lead trial counsel alongside Godfrey, another seasoned trial lawyer and an architect of GM’s defense. As chief outside counsel for GM in the ignition switch litigation since 2014 , Godfrey coordinated the trial team’s efforts and was frequently front and center in court last Thursday.
The defense lawyers argued that the new evidence from Kleven ran counter to Scheuer’s testimony that he couldn’t remember anything about the real estate deal. And, they said, it contradicted Lisa Scheuer’s insistence under oath that the house purchase didn’t go through because her husband couldn’t work as much following the car crash.
Those arguments appear to have swayed U.S. District Judge Jesse Furman. During court proceedings on Jan. 21, Furman said that based on what he had heard so far, he had to assume that the Scheuers committed a fraud on the court and the jury, and may even have misled their own lawyers.
“It might make sense to make this case go away,” Furman later said, according to a transcript.
In the end, that’s exactly what happened.
The dramatic end to the case left Scheuer's lawyers in an unusual pickle. (The plaintiffs team is led by Robert Hilliard of Hilliard Munoz & Gonzalez and Steve Berman of Hagens Berman Sobol Shapiro, who had chosen Scheuer’s case to be the first of six bellwethers in the litigation.) It also set off infighting among plaintiffs lawyers involved in the multi-district litigation.
Scheuer and his wife Lisa Scheuer, meanwhile, have reportedly hired criminal defense lawyers in the face of perjury accusations by GM.
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