GM, law firm can keep ignition switch documents secret: U.S. judge

Wed Nov 25, 2015 3:15pm EST
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By Jonathan Stempel

NEW YORK (Reuters) - General Motors Co (GM.N: Quote) and its law firm need not turn over privileged documents to drivers hoping to show that the automaker intended to commit a crime or fraud by concealing defective ignition switches in their vehicles, a Manhattan federal judge ruled on Wednesday.

Despite finding "probable cause" to believe GM committed a crime or fraud by hiding the defect from regulators and the public, U.S. District Judge Jesse Furman found no showing that the automaker and King & Spalding produced the documents with an intent to further such misconduct.

Most of the documents related to the law firm's advice from 2010 to 2013 on three crashes involving Chevrolet Cobalts. Vehicle owners said the deception justified a waiver of attorney-client privilege.

"Put simply, plaintiffs do not provide a factual basis for a good faith belief that the communications and work product they seek - let alone any particular communications or work product they seek - were made with the intent to further a crime or fraud," Furman wrote.

The judge added that the vehicle owners already had many of the documents in hand, and that King & Spalding's work had "all the hallmarks of dispassionate, sober evaluations (perhaps, in hindsight, too dispassionate and sober for their own good)."

Wednesday's decision is a victory for GM as it prepares for a Jan. 11, 2016, bellwether trial over an ignition switch defect that could cause engines to stall and prevent airbags from deploying in crashes.

The defect on Cobalts, Saturn Ions and other vehicles has been linked to at least 124 deaths.

GM in February 2014 began recalling 2.6 million vehicles to fix the defect, despite having awareness of a possible problem a decade earlier.   Continued...

The GM logo is seen at the General Motors Lansing Grand River Assembly Plant in Lansing, Michigan October 26, 2015.  REUTERS/Rebecca Cook