Wisconsin families sue GM over fatal accident


General Motors Co. is targeted with what is believed to be the first wrongful death lawsuit over ignition switch problems since it recalled 1.6 million vehicles in February, Reuters reports.

The lawsuit was filed late Friday in Minnesota state court by the families of two western Wisconsin teenagers who were killed, and a third who was severely injured, in a 2006 accident while riding in a 2005 Chevrolet Cobalt.

The Cobalt is one of the models GM recalled over the ignition problems.

The crash killed Natasha Weigel, 18, and Amy Rademaker, 15, and left driver Megan Phillips, then 19, with brain damage, USA Today reports.

According to the lawsuit, the Chevy Cobalt's ignition switch suddenly turned from the "run" to "accessory" position, causing the steering, breaking and airbag systems to lose power. Phillips lost control of the car, which left the road and struck a telephone junction box and two trees, the lawsuit said.

Family members of Rademaker and Weigel, as well as Phillips, are each seeking more than $50,000. The lawsuit names GM and Rosedale Chevrolet, the dealership that sold the vehicle.

The lawsuit claims that GM knew of the ignition problems for a decade but failed to take steps to fix the cars, until it announced the recall last month.

The defects were "knowingly, intentionally and fraudulently ignored and intentionally kept secret from the public," according to the lawsuit.

A spokesman for GM, Jim Cain, said the company would respond to the lawsuit in due course.

The case could be the first test of GM’s legal immunity from lawsuits arising before it went through bankruptcy.

The terms of its exit from bankruptcy state that the "new" GM, a different legal entity from the "old" GM, is not responsible for accidents that occurred before July 2009, according to Reuters. Those claims must be brought against what remains of the pre-bankruptcy company. The lawsuit, however, names new GM as a defendant.

Legal experts say GM may be obligated to compensate victims from pre-bankruptcy crashes if the victims can prove GM did not disclose its knowledge of the defects while it was going through the bankruptcy process, Reuters said.

Robert Hilliard, an attorney for the families, said he believes GM may consider settling this and other pre-bankruptcy cases to avoid negative publicity.

GM is facing several other lawsuits in the wake of the recall. Reuters reports that GM CEO Mary Barra, who took the job in January, has ordered an "unvarnished" internal report on what happened, apologized for the accidents and plans to testify before Congress on April 1.

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