By Nick Bunkley, Crain News Service
DETROIT (Feb. 1, 2016) — A bizarre end to the first trial over faulty ignition switches in millions of General Motors Co. cars has sparked an unusual battle among several of the lawyers who have been leading the fight to hold GM accountable.
Lance Cooper, the Georgia lawyer who first exposed the defect, last week leveled misconduct accusations against Bob Hilliard, a prominent Texas attorney who has filed many of the cases against GM and is also pursuing class-action claims against Volkswagen A.G. for deceiving consumers over emissions.
Mr. Cooper last week asked a federal judge to re-examine a settlement fund covering more than 1,000 of Mr. Hilliard's clients and to remove Mr. Hilliard and two other lawyers from their roles heading a series of national lawsuits against GM. One of the other co-leads is Steve Berman, who was among the lawyers who reached a $1.6 billion settlement with Toyota Motor Corp. over sudden acceleration claims in 2013.
If the judge reopens the settlement, it would unwind one of the biggest pieces of GM's effort to move past the scandal and could increase the auto maker's financial exposure.
The spat broke out after Mr. Hilliard dropped a case involving an Oklahoma mailman who blamed a 2014 crash of his Saturn Ion on the faulty ignition switch. The case was the first of six so-called bellwether trials aimed at determining GM's liability, but it collapsed on Mr. Hilliard when GM accused the plaintiff, Robert Scheuer, of lying during testimony about why his family was evicted from a new home after the crash.
Mr. Scheuer claimed that memory loss caused him to misplace a $49,500 check meant to be the down payment on the home. But after the trial started, the real-estate agent involved in the transaction contacted GM with evidence that Mr. Scheuer had doctored a check stub to fool the builder into thinking he had enough money to buy the home.
The case “should never have been filed, let alone gone to trial,” Mr. Cooper said in the motion asking U.S. District Judge Jesse Furman in Manhattan to remove Messrs. Hilliard, Berman and Elizabeth Cabraser as co-leads in the GM cases.
“Over time it became clear that prosecution of the case was not about obtaining the necessary evidence to present the best case at trial,” Mr. Cooper wrote. “Rather, it was about billing hours and carving out hours and making sure that the Co-Leads controlled this process. In short, it was about making money for the Co-Leads.”
In another motion, Mr. Cooper accused Mr. Hilliard of making a deal in conjunction with the GM settlement fund limiting the auto maker's liability in the bellwether cases, five of which were filed by Mr. Hilliard.
“This latest unsupportable filing by Mr. Cooper satisfies me that he has comfortably settled in to his self-appointed role as official loose cannon to this litigation,” Mr. Hilliard told Bloomberg News in an email. “His ‘sky is falling' approach, though unprofessional and self-demeaning, will be addressed in our response.”
Messrs. Hilliard, Berman and Ms. Cabraser had until Monday to file a response.
This report appeared on the website of Automotive News, a Detroit-based sister publication of Tire Business.