April 12, 2016 / 9:42 PM / a year ago

Plaintiffs eye path ahead in GM ignition-switch cases

3 Min Read

A recalled Chevy Cobalt ignition switch is seen at Raymond Chevrolet in Antioch, Illinois, July 17, 2014.John Gress

NEW YORK (Reuters) - Lawyers for plaintiffs suing General Motors Co over injuries and deaths blamed on faulty ignitions switches said they are prepared to forge ahead with further trials this year despite promising recent developments for the automaker.

Last week, GM (GM.N) avoided an upcoming trial by settling what was considered by plaintiffs' lawyers to be one of their strongest cases, involving a father of five who was killed in a 2013 crash. The next day, the parties agreed to dismiss the next case slated for trial, brought by an Alabama man suing over crash injuries from 2013.

Still, a lead lawyer for plaintiffs, Robert Hilliard, said this week they are prepared to press forward and will discuss “all options” with the court for the next trials.

A case initially set for trial in September – brought by a Virginia woman who said she suffered traumatic crash injuries in 2011 - could be ready as soon as late June, Hilliard said.

The company has already paid out $2 billion in criminal and civil penalties and settlements over the switch, which can slip out of place, causing engine stalls and cutting power to various systems. GM acknowledged some employees knew about it for years before a recall was ordered.

Since January, GM has avoided major defeats in the switch litigation. A first trial was dismissed midway after the plaintiff was accused of giving misleading testimony. In a second trial, the jury found the switch was defective but did not cause plaintiffs’ crash.

The dismissals have created an unexpected gap in the planned series of six test, or bellwether, trials set for federal litigation. Next week, both sides will appear before U.S. District Judge Jesse Furman in Manhattan to discuss the next steps.

While the early verdicts are not binding on other cases, they are important in helping both sides assess the claims' value. Although GM has resolved nearly 2,000 claims through settlements and its own out-of-court compensation fund, more than 230 injury and death lawsuits are pending in federal court.

Hilliard noted that 18 trials are scheduled in state courts through 2017. State courts are generally viewed as more plaintiff-friendly than federal courts, and GM could still be hit with a sizable verdict.

GM spokesman Jim Cain declined to comment on trial scheduling but said the company continued to believe the trials would help establish settlement values.

Reporting by Jessica Dye; Editing by Alexia Garamfalvi and Alan Crosby

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