Exclusive: GM crash victims' families who settled may revisit deals

Sat Mar 29, 2014 12:46pm EDT
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By Jessica Dye, Julia Edwards and Paul Lienert

(Reuters) - Two families who settled with General Motors Co over fatal crashes linked to faulty ignition switches are considering trying to overturn the agreements, after the company disclosed it had known about the issue for years.

The lawyer of one family said he could challenge the agreement, alleging that the automaker fraudulently covered up the problem, and his clients intended to try. A second family also told Reuters it is preparing to try to break the deal and then sue GM. Neither family has yet done so, however, and trying to win such actions will be difficult.

To undo a settlement, plaintiffs would have to convince a judge that they were intentionally misled or defrauded by the other party, according to legal experts and plaintiffs' lawyers. If the families were successful in setting aside the settlements, they could then sue GM.

GM, which on Friday increased a global recall of vehicles because of the ignition switch problem by almost a million to nearly 2.6 million, declined to comment on specific suits or pending litigation. In a statement it said: "We deeply regret the circumstances that led to the recall. We have launched an internal review to give us an unvarnished report on what happened. We will hold ourselves accountable and improve our processes so our customers do not experience this again."

Courts are often reluctant to undo settlements, which are the main means of resolving personal-injury and wrongful-death cases, said Frank Vandall, a professor at Emory University School of Law and a product-liability expert.

Each settlement would have to be challenged individually, since the deals depended on the laws of the state where the settlement was reached, the facts of the case and the terms of the individual agreement.

With a sophisticated litigant like GM at the table, it's likely any agreement would be "very well-drafted and difficult" to break, Vandall said. Breaking a settlement also may mean that the family has to return any money they received, depending on the terms of the original agreement.

But if it emerges that GM continued to sell cars with the faulty ignition switch despite having evidence that it was a hazard, and intentionally misled opposing lawyers or omitted critical information, "judges might well set aside the settlement," Vandall said.   Continued...

Terry DiBattista looks over an album created in memory of her adopted daughter Amber Rose at her home in Conway, South Carolina March 28, 2014. REUTERS/Randall Hill