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Federal judge rejects push for new lead counsel in GM ignition switch litigation

By Jessica Karmasek | Feb 11, 2016

NEW YORK (Legal Newsline) - A New York federal judge overseeing the General Motors Co. ignition switch multi-district litigation on Wednesday denied a motion to remove court-appointed lead counsel.

Judge Jesse Furman, for the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York, said in his order that Georgia attorney Lance Cooper’s motions are “patently untimely” and “fall far short” of meeting the “rigorous” standards applicable to motions for reconsideration.

Cooper, who helped in exposing the flaws in the company’s ignition switches, had asked Furman to appoint new lead counsel and reconsider the schedule of other pending cases.

“The Cooper Plaintiffs provide little or no evidence to support their (sometimes wild) accusations of impropriety and underhandedness on the part of Lead Counsel,” Furman wrote in his five-page order.

In his motions, Cooper argued that the lead attorneys -- Robert Hilliard of Texas law firm Hilliard Muñoz & Gonzales LLP, Steve Berman Washington state law firm Hagens Berman Sobol Shapiro and Elizabeth Cabraser of San Francisco-based Lieff Cabraser Heimann & Bernstein LLP -- engineered the trial schedule to maximize their own profits.

Cooper filed his motions days after Furman accepted a deal between GM and plaintiffs’ attorneys, who agreed to call off a trial -- the first of several bellwether trials -- after GM’s lawyers uncovered evidence suggesting the plaintiff, Robert Scheuer, had committed fraud.

In his order Wednesday, Furman pointed out that “not one of the hundreds” of other lawyers representing the plaintiffs in the MDL or in parallel state proceedings -- including the nine other lawyers who were appointed to the MDL plaintiffs’ executive committee -- joined Cooper in making his motions.

“With the benefit of 20/20 hindsight, it is easy to criticize some decisions that Lead Counsel have made in this complex and multi-faceted litigation and to present select examples of the push and pull among high-powered plaintiffs’ counsel (whose interests are mostly aligned but sometimes competing) that could appear unseemly,” the judge explained.

“The Cooper Plaintiffs do little more than engage in that sort of ‘Monday morning quarterbacking’ and, more to the point, do not even come close to providing a legal basis for the drastic step of removing Lead Counsel in the middle of MDL proceedings that, all things considered, have proceeded remarkably smoothly and swiftly to date.”

Furman said Cooper is so caught up in the outcome of the first bellwether trial, that he has ignored the “many ways” in which the litigation advanced the MDL proceedings as a whole.

“While New GM may have ‘won’ the first bellwether trial, it faces 25 more trials (and counting) in the coming months, against a wide array of plaintiffs’ lawyers; the outcomes of those trials in the aggregate will ultimately matter more than the outcome of any one trial (especially the outcome of the first bellwether trial, given the lack of a jury verdict and the sui generis reasons for New GM’s ‘victory’),” the judge continued.

“In other words, to focus on the outcome of the first bellwether trial -- as the Cooper Plaintiffs largely do -- is to miss the forest for a single tree.”

Furman said he hopes his “bottom-line” ruling on the motions will lift any “cloud of uncertainty” hovering over the status of the lead counsel, bellwether trial schedule and pending settlement.

He said he also hopes the plaintiffs’ counsel will “stop litigating their grievances with one another” and focus on their “common adversary,” GM.

In a statement, Berman described Cooper’s motions as “unwarranted” and “time-wasting.”

“We look forward to continuing to best represent the plaintiffs in this case against GM who have been victim to its egregious actions -- they are what matter most,” he said.

From Legal Newsline: Reach Jessica Karmasek by email at jessica@legalnewsline.com.

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Organizations in this Story

General Motors Hagens Berman Sobol Shapiro, LLP Hilliard Munoz and Gonzales Lieff Cabraser Heimann & Bernstein, LLP

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