GM Fails to Derail Texas Ignition Suit on False Evidence

Updated on
  • Judge said he’ll tell jurors they were shown the wrong key
  • GM got earlier ignition-switch trial dropped on witness lie

General Motors LLC failed to derail a Texas family’s claim for damages over a car crash blamed on a faulty ignition-switch after jurors were shown the wrong car key last week.

GM claimed Zachary Stevens’ family intentionally faked evidence in a bid to bolster their claim that a Saturn Sky’s ignition switch jiggled off and caused the crash, seriously injuring their then 19-year-old son and killing another driver. A Texas judge on Tuesday didn’t accept the company’s claim that the evidence fatally tainted the trial.

“That key is obviously not an original key that came with that car,” as family members testified, Texas State Judge Robert Schaffer told lawyers in denying GM’s request to throw out the case. He said he’ll personally tell jurors they were given the wrong key and let them take that into consideration.

“It presents a credibility issue for the plaintiffs,” he said.

The trial, underway in Houston, is the second GM ignition case that threatened to blow up midway on accusations that a witness lied.

In recall notices issued for GM cars with the ignition-switch defect, the automaker instructed drivers to remove everything from their key rings, as the added weight might contribute to the switch jostling off. The key ring shown jurors in Houston included a bundle of other keys, an Eiffel Tower charm and a gym membership tag.

Reckless Speeding

GM has repeatedly told jurors the Stevens’ accident was caused by the teenager’s reckless speeding on a rain-slick country road, not by any alleged safety defect in his mother’s car.

Josh Davis, the family’s lawyer, told the judge the Stevenses innocently mistook the key they showed jurors -- which most likely belonged to Zach’s GMC truck -- as their missing Saturn Sky key when they found the mother’s missing key ring bundle in a storage tub retrieved from the family’s flooded garage last month.

Family members testified it was the same key the father pulled from their wrecked Saturn in 2011 and then allegedly misplaced it until a few weeks ago. The key didn’t work in the salvaged Sky’s ignition on Sunday, during a field trip demonstration conducted for the judge by lawyers for both sides.

Davis told the judge it doesn’t matter which car key was shown to jurors because he claims other evidence proves the Sky’s ignition switch jostled off in the moments before the crash, disabling the vehicle’s airbags, seatbelt pretensioners, power steering and power brakes.

Winning Streak

The Stevens’ claim is the first tried in Texas state court as GM seeks to extend its winning streak on ignition-switch cases tried in federal court. In January, a federal case in New York fell apart midway through a trial when an Oklahoma postman suing GM dropped his claims after he was accused of lying.

Robert Scheuer testified in that case that injuries he sustained in a May 2014 wreck of his Saturn Ion led to his family’s eviction from their “dream house.” GM accused him of perjury in connection with the financing on the house, and the Scheuers dropped their lawsuit, without getting a penny from GM.

The Scheuer dismissal was a lucky break for the automaker, which has already spent more than $2 billion to resolve investigations and a securities lawsuit over the flawed ignition switches, as well as death and injury claims. The Stevens’ dismissal would’ve been a second lucky break for GM, which faces hundreds of claims linked to a variety of safety recalls. GM recalled 2.6 million U.S. vehicles over the potentially faulty ignition switches that company engineers knew for years could fail.

After that recall, Houston-area prosecutors dropped criminal manslaughter charges against Zach Stevens over the death of the second driver in the crash. The Stevens family is seeking compensation from GM for the cost of Zach’s criminal defense and his lingering traumatic brain injury.

The case is Stevens v. General Motors LLC, 2015-04442, 152nd Judicial District Court of Harris County, Texas (Houston).

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