By Margaret Cronin Fisk and Erik Larson, Bloomberg News
NEW YORK/DETROIT (Jan. 26, 2016) — The lead attorneys in a sprawling group of lawsuits against General Motors Co. over defective ignition switches have failed and should be removed, a rival lawyer who helped reveal the deadly flaw urged in a blistering court filing.
Lance Cooper called the collapse of the first trial, held in U.S. District Court in Manhattan last week, “an embarrassing retreat,'' in a request Jan. 25 to U.S. District Judge Jesse Furman to remove co-lead counsels Robert Hilliard, Steve Berman and Elizabeth Cabraser.
The plaintiffs in that trial, an Oklahoma mail carrier and his wife, dropped their suit after the postman was accused of fabricating a check stub to try to buy their “dream” house, leading to their eviction. Robert and Lisa Scheuer had claimed that injuries from an accident they say was caused by the faulty GM ignition switch ultimately cost them the home.
The failure of the first trial was “the culmination of a long series of poor decisions and mismanagement” by Messrs. Hilliard and Berman and Ms. Cabraser, Mr. Cooper said in the filing. A lawsuit he filed over the death of Brooke Melton, who was killed in a 2010 crash of a Chevrolet Cobalt, spurred a massive recall of cars with the flawed ignition switches.
Mr. Cooper's claims are inaccurate and the choice of Mr. Scheuer as the first trial was appropriate, Mr. Hilliard said in an email.
“There is not a single bit of evidence filed in support of his accusations and we will prove he is off base in our response,” Mr. Berman said in an email.
Ms. Cabraser didn't immediately respond to phone and email messages seeking comment on the allegations.
James Cain, a GM spokesman, declined to comment.
GM recalled 2.59 million small cars in 2014 to replace a faulty ignition switch, which has been linked to at least 124 deaths. The switch could be jarred into the “accessory” position, shutting off the engine, disabling power steering and brakes and preventing air bags from deploying.
The company recalled another 10 million vehicles in 2014 for a similar defect. Most death and injury suits were combined in federal court before Furman in Manhattan, who set six claims as bellwether or test cases for trial, starting with Mr. Scheuer.
GM has paid $594 million over the deaths and 275 injuries through a compensation fund overseen by lawyer Kenneth Feinberg. The fund was limited, however, to vehicles in the first batch of recalls. The company also is paying $275 million to settle almost 1,400 death and injury lawsuits brought by Mr. Hilliard.
Hundreds more cases remain in state and federal courts, with more than a dozen set for trial this year. Mr. Cooper has several of these cases pending.