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Mark Bello
Mark Bello
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Bottling Up Safety: GM Victims Fall Through Legal Cracks

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Since General Motors began recalling millions of vehicles, several reports showed that the both automaker and federal regulators were aware of the defective ignition switches, but failed to address it. If that wasn’t enough, our justice system is failing to protect consumers by creating an environment in which legitimate claims are falling through legal cracks.

Two Wisconsin families needlessly lost teenage daughters in a 2006 auto accident because of faulty ignition switches. Both families went to experienced product liability attorneys who had pursued auto defect cases before; both were told that the value of their child’s life was too small to justify the expense and risk of taking on GM in court. Why? Because heavily tort-reformed, Wisconsin law pre-valued the cases at $350,000.

At the time these families attempted to pursue their lawsuits, they were told that GM had settled at least six ignition-related lawsuits out of court, but those settlements barred public disclosures about the issue. Several families who had previously settled with GM confirmed to the New York Times that entered into a confidential settlement agreement; they were unable to speak about the defect publicly or they would risk losing their settlements. In September 2014, both Wisconsin families reached a settlement with GM for an undisclosed amount. According to their attorney, the families decided it was best to settle given uncertainty about GM’s financial condition and whether GM would be immune, in bankruptcy, to lawsuit payments. The families also agreed to settle confidentially despite the harm that previous settlement confidentiality had done to their legal rights. The deaths of these two Wisconsin teens were needless and couldn’t even be used to make other people safer.

The ability to trade settlements for confidentiality is a frequently used corporate legal tactic to avoid bringing corporate negligence to light. Like tort reform, it curtailed justice, suppressed vital information about a dangerous product, and allowed the auto manufacturer to put profits over safety. Fortunately, the GM faulty switch defect issues came to light when a Georgia (a state without strict caps on damages in product liability suits) attorney filed a lawsuit against the GM in 2011. Two years later, GM offered to settle the Georgia case for $5 million, as long as the family and their attorney never spoke about the defect publicly – another cover-up. Several months later, GM publicly disclosed the defect for the first time, leading to the recall of 2.2 million GM vehicles. To date, at least 42 deaths have been linked to the GM ignition defect, lives that could have been saved if GM had fixed the defective switch, which reportedly cost as little as 57 cents per vehicle.

You may be wondering why a company like GM would purposely withhold information about potential dangers from the public. The first and obvious reason is profits! Also, it knows that, in many states, tort reform will limit a plaintiff’s recovery; some will even bar victims from pursuing the lawsuit in the first instance. Legislative “favors” to corporate America have created a legal environment in which the economics can’t work in a victim’s favor. GM was also counting on its 2009 bankruptcy filing to provide immunity for all injuries and deaths that preceded it.

Remember the Ford Pinto exploding gas tanks? History repeats itself, over and over, and instead of safety advances, we, the people, get from our elected government officials, state and federal, tort reform and immunity for corporations at the expense of the seriously injured, disabled, and killed. Tort reform, like bankruptcy, causes innocent victims to be restricted from the compensation they deserve and shifts responsibility to entitlement programs (taxpayers). Guilty corporations should be held accountable for negligent and/or deliberate corporate choices. Instead of taking responsibility for lax safety standards and defective designs, they use tort reform to make taxpayers cover the costs of their negligence. When legislatures take away from juries the right to value human life or to award punitive damages, they tend to give corporations a “free pass” to manufacture cars, build roads, develop pharmaceuticals, and sell other products with less concern for the value and sanctity of human life than for their bottom lines.

Next time you hear about tort reform and think it is a good idea, consider the victims due to the actions and omissions of a GM who knew about a lurking problem in its vehicles. Let’s not forget the court system was designed to afford justice to those who are wronged by the negligence of others. If your elected official, state or federal, supports tort reform, please consider another candidate. After all, the next victim of corporate negligence might be you or someone you love.

Mark Bello is the CEO and General Counsel of Lawsuit Financial Corporation, a pro-justice lawsuit funding company.

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