General Motors settles last bellwether ignition-switch cases

The GM logo is seen at the General Motors Warren Transmission Operations Plant in Warren, Michigan October 26, 2015. REUTERS/Rebecca Cook

By Lawrence Hurley

(Reuters) - General Motors Co <GM.N> said on Monday it settled the last two so-called bellwether cases stemming from a faulty ignition switch linked to 124 deaths and 275 injuries.

The settlement came on the eve of what would have been the fourth in a series of test trials intended to help GM and plaintiffs define settlement options in 234 injury and death lawsuits consolidated in Manhattan federal court.

One of the two cases, which had been set for a Sept. 12 trial, was filed by Virginia resident Stephanie Cockram, who sued GM over injuries she said she sustained in a June 28, 2011 single-vehicle crash while driving a 2006 Chevrolet Cobalt.

Another trial over claims made by Kentucky resident Amy Norville, who crashed her Saturn Ion in 2013 seeking to avoid a deer on the road, was scheduled for later this year.

Cockram's case would have been the fourth trial on the issue. The first was voluntarily dismissed by plaintiffs during the trial, and GM was cleared of liability in two others.

"We have an agreement to settle the last two federal bellwether cases," said company spokesman James Cain.

The bellwether trials have been “extremely helpful” in part because they showed “juries care deeply about the cause and contributing factors of each accident and the merits of the claims," Cain added. As such, they are “holding plaintiffs to their burden of proof," he said.

The ignition switch can slip out of place, causing engines to stall and cutting power to the brake, steering and air bag systems.

The defect prompted the recall of 2.6 million vehicles in 2014.

Bob Hilliard, a lawyer for the plaintiffs, said in an interview that the latest settlement "gives a clear indication that GM is interested in attempting resolution of both the federal and various state cases that they believe have merit."

Several cases are due to go to trial in mid-2017, which may lead to further settlements, Hilliard said.

"My expectation is they will try to resolve those that they believe put the company at peril and try the ones they think they can win," he added.

A separate group of cases, arising from incidents that took place before GM's bankruptcy in 2009 could also move forward following a recent appeals court ruling that went against the company.

GM resolved some claims for injuries and deaths blamed on the switch through an out-of-court program administered by Washington lawyer Kenneth Feinberg.

GM has paid roughly $2 billion in criminal and civil penalties and settlements in connection with the switch. The company previously acknowledged that some of its employees knew about the switch defect for years before a recall was initiated.

In two of the other trials, GM was cleared in federal court of liability for a 2014 crash in New Orleans and, in a case heard in Texas state court, a jury in August said the company was not to blame for a fatal 2011 crash.

(Reporting by Arunima Banerjee in Bengaluru; Additional reporting by Lawrence Hurley and Nate Raymond; Editing by Tom Brown)