NEW YORK (Reuters) - General Motors (GM.N) is set to go to trial Monday in a lawsuit over its 2014 recall of millions of vehicles for a faulty ignition switch linked to nearly 400 injuries and deaths.
In the lawsuit, plaintiff Robert Scheuers claims he was injured when his 2003 Saturn Ion ran off the highway, became airborne and then struck the ground and trees in May 2014. The front air bag did not deploy, which Scheuer blamed on the switch despite having followed GM's instructions to remove all but a single key from his key ring.
GM has argued there is no proof that the switch caused or exacerbated Scheuer's injuries. “Each bellwether case will be tried on its own merits," GM spokesman Jim Cain said.
It is the first of six trials this year before U.S. District Judge Jesse Furman in the Southern District of New York, who oversees litigation from crash victims and from customers who say their cars lost value.
While not binding on other cases, the verdict will provide insight into the strengths of both sides' evidence as GM looks to wrap up the remaining switch litigation. It has already agreed to pay roughly $2 billion in civil and criminal penalties and settlements over the switch.
In February 2014, GM began recalling 2.6 million cars with the faulty switch, which can slip out of place, stalling engines and preventing air bags from deploying. Evidence emerged that some individuals at GM were aware of the problem much earlier.
Scheuer, whose complaint says he suffers from continuing neck and back pain as a result of his injuries, is asking the jury to find the switch's failure prevented the air bags from protecting him. He also says GM put him at risk by delaying the recall and doing too little for customers. He will seek punitive damages based on GM’s “intentional post-bankruptcy conduct,” according to his lawyer, Robert Hilliard.
The case's focus will be limited to GM's actions after its 2009 bankruptcy, which left many liabilities with "Old GM" while creating "New GM" from its profitable operations, thanks to a ruling last year from the bankruptcy judge.
GM paid $900 million in September to end a related U.S. criminal probe, and took a $575 million charge to settle about 1,380 injury and death cases and shareholder litigation. It also resolved 399 injury and death claims through an independent fund. Several hundred lawsuits for injuries, deaths and lost vehicle value remain.
The case is In re General Motors Ignition Switch Litigation, U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York, No. 14-2543.
Reporting by Jessica Dye; Editing by Alexia Garamfalvi and Leslie Adler