Tort Law

Did damage caps discourage suits that could have spotlighted GM ignition defect?

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After a 2006 fatal Chevy Cobalt crash was linked to a defective ignition switch, families of two teens killed in the Wisconsin accident decided to sue.

The families, however, were unable to find contingency lawyers to take the case. The reason: a $350,000 damages cap in WIsconsin, the New York Times reports.

One of the firms that rejected the case was Habush, Habush & Rottier in Milwaukee. “Because of the $350,000 maximum recovery for loss of society in Wisconsin and the extreme expense of litigating the case against General Motors, our office is unwilling to become involved in this matter,” wrote partner Daniel Rottier in a 1987 letter to one of the teen’s families.

The Times spoke with legal experts who said tort reform and rising lawsuit costs might be discouraging suits that can bring problems to light such as the defective ignition switch in Chevy Cobalts. General Motors agreed to pay a $35 million civil penalty in May for delays in responding to the defective switches, which can slip into the “accessory” position, disabling air bags and making steering and braking more difficult.

“In the end,” the Times says, “the defect’s public disclosure–and the recall of 2.2 million G.M. vehicles in the United States–was set in motion by a lawsuit filed in Georgia, a state that does not place strict caps on damages in product liability lawsuits.” The 2011 suit was filed on behalf of Brooke Melton, 29, who died on a Chevrolet Cobalt accident.

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