A federal judge has thrown out two cases considered legal bellwethers of what claims will be allowed against General Motors in federal lawsuits over flawed ignition switches linked to more than 100 deaths.
The plaintiffs in the cases contended that their GM ignition switches may have rotated from “run” at the moment of crash impact to “accessory” or “off,” thereby causing the accidents or making them worse, according to federal court filings in the multi-district litigation being considered in New York.
The switches then may have turned back to “run” before the airbags deployed, the plaintiffs contended in expert testimony submitted to the court.
However, Manhattan District Court Judge Jesse Furman, who is presiding over the litigation, disallowed expert testimony about "double switch rotation, characterizing it as unreliable.
GM failed to disclose the defect in which the ignition switch could rotate to the off position, causing cars to stall and failed deployment of the airbags. The automaker paid an estimated $2.5 billion in penalties and settlements in the scandal, including $900 million to settle a U.S. Department of Justice criminal case and $120 million in October to settle claims from states.
In all, the defect left at least 124 people dead and 275 injured in small cars such as the Chevrolet Cobalt and Saturn Ion. The defective ignition switches could cause vehicles to stall, and GM recalled more than 2.7 million vehicles in 2014.
The settlements did not resolve the litigation being handled by Furman.
In the cases the judge dismissed on Thursday, court filings show the plaintiffs — like many others — alleged their ignition switches rotated off while they were driving, cutting power to steering and braking systems at critical moments.
But unlike other lawsuits, the plaintiffs argued that the switches rotated back to the 'run' position a few seconds before impact, explaining why airbags were deployed."
However, Furman's ruling said that one expert witness used by the plaintiffs testified that he knew of only two real-life crashes where such a sequence occurred, "the two accidents at issue here."
In his 25-page ruling, Furman said he was aware that dismissing the two cases "may have a significant impact on a swath of (other) cases now pending ... and, thus, does not reach them lightly."
However, citing requirements in legal precedents, the judge said the court's role is "to ensure the reliability and relevancy of expert testimony and to make certain that an expert ... employs in the courtroom the same level of intellectual rigor that characterizes the practice of an expert in the relevant field."
Contributing: Kevin McCoy, USA TODAY