A New York federal jury found Wednesday that a General Motors ignition switch didn't cause an Arizona driver to rear-end another car in Tucson morning traffic, giving the automaker a win in the first of six planned bellwether trials.
The jury said that the old, pre-bankruptcy GM did not negligently design Dennis Ward's switch, and the new, post-bankruptcy GM did not fail to warn Ward or violate federal laws on recalls. (AP)
The trial of plaintiff Dennis Ward — which follows last year's initial set of six bellwether cases — began July 10. Willcox, Arizona, resident Ward said his ignition switch rotated out of the "Run" position and cut his power, including antilock braking, which sent him into the back of a Ford Explorer on March 27, 2014. GM recalled Ward's 2009 Chevy HHR on March 28, 2014.
In closing arguments Tuesday, Ward argued that the trial itself had been part and parcel of a cover-up and "concealment" strategy that GM faithfully follows to this day.
The jury made multiple communiques before returning a verdict. On Wednesday morning around 10 a.m., it asked for Scotch tape. About 45 minutes later, it sent three substantive questions, concerning in part GM's legal obligations to report safety defects to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.
U.S. District Judge Jesse Furman referred them to a specific section of the lengthy jury instructions. They also wanted to know when Ward actually had his switch replaced. That date never made it into trial, and that was Judge Furman's answer.
Ward's 2009 Chevy HHR did not have the more famous detent plunger part, sometimes called the Delta part or the '423 part, that received the lion's share of blame and attention as GM dealt with accusations of a yearslong cover-up. Instead, its modified detent plunger design featured a slightly longer head and slightly longer spring, more effectively pinning the key in the "Run" slot so that it couldn't rotate backwards to "Accessory."
Despite the fact that this is the second round of bellwether cases in the yearslong litigation, Ward's is only the second finished trial.
Last year's single verdict came in March in the trial of plaintiffs Dionne Spain and Lawrence Barthelemy; a jury found that GM vehicles were unreasonably dangerous but didn't find that their injuries were caused by their car. Of the five other cases picked for the bellwether group, one was dismissed by the plaintiff before trial, one was dropped partway through trial by a plaintiff facing claims of falsifying financial documents and three were settled.
Hundreds of deaths and injuries have been attributed to the design flaws; some 1,680 personal injury and wrongful death cases remained in the multidistrict litigation as of February. GM signed a deferred-prosecution agreement with the U.S. Department of Justice in 2015, paying a $900 million fine alongside it.
Ward's right patellar tendon ruptured in the crash, and he spent 23 days in the hospital after emergency surgery.
The 10-person jury included a lawyer, a grad student, a recent graduate, a sanitation worker, a Citibank executive assistant, a nurse practitioner, and a security guard.
Jury selection took place eight years to the day after Old GM's bankruptcy sale order was finalized on July 10, 2009.
GM has also won a bellwether in a separate Texas state MDL. In late August, a Houston jury found it was not a defect in GM's ignition switch that was responsible for the 2011 wreck that injured Zachary Stevens and killed another person, clearing the automotive giant following a three-week trial in a suit brought by Stevens.
Stevens, who was 19 and driving a 2007 Saturn Sky at the time of the crash, filed the suit in January 2015 and it was later selected as one of the two bellwether trials for the Texas MDL stemming from GM's ignition switch defects.
After Wednesday's win, Ward said he was disappointed because he felt the loss would hurt the remaining plaintiffs, "all the other people that have been injured."
"I feel sorry for them," Ward said.
GM noted in a brief statement that the win "underlines the fact that each case must be tried on its own merits."
Meanwhile, juror Brittany Fuller said that considering the case in its totality was slightly overwhelming.
"It was a lot. It was a lot," Fuller said. "I felt for the plaintiff. But the law is the law."
Judge Furman broke from his usual practice of discouraging jurors from sharing their insights with counsel after trial, saying that in this case he would encourage them to do so and would collect a list of contact information from jurors willing to participate. It would likely help the two sides inch further toward a resolution of the many remaining cases in the MDL, he said.
Ward is represented by James Bilsborrow, Nicholas Wise and Paul Novak of Weitz & Luxenberg PC.
GM is represented by Mike Brock, Renee Smith, Brian Sieve, Richard Godfrey and Andrew Bloomer of Kirkland & Ellis LLP.
The cases are In re General Motors LLC Ignition Switch Litigation, case number 1:14-md-02543, and Ward v. GM, case number 1:14-cv-08317, both in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York.