GM, Like BP, Will Use Multidistrict Litigation and the Fund Approach to Limit Its Liability
April 3, 2014
The Faulty GM Ignition Switch
Since February, 2014, General Motors (“GM”) has recalled 2.6 million cars – mostly Chevrolet Cobalts and Saturn Ions – over a faulty ignition switch, which can cause the engine to cut off in traffic, disabling the power steering, power brakes and air bags and making it difficult to control the vehicle.
Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Calif., said that House Energy and Commerce Committee staff members found 133 warranty claims filed with GM over 10 years detailing customer complaints of sudden engine stalling when they drove over a bump or brushed keys with their knees.
The claims were filed between June 2003 and June 2012. Waxman said that because GM didn’t undertake a simple fix when it learned of the problem, “at least a dozen people have died in defective GM vehicles.”
GM intends to handle its liability for failing to properly address its faulty ignition switch problem in the same manner that BP addressed its liability for the BP oil spill of 2010 in the Gulf of Mexico. It’s basically a simple two-pronged approach:
(a) The United States Judicial Panel on Multidistrict Litigation (“JPML”) will order that centralization of the GM faulty ignition switch cases will “eliminate duplicative discovery, prevent inconsistent pretrial rulings, and conserve the resources of the parties, their counsel, and the judiciary; and serve the convenience of the parties and witnesses and promote the more just and efficient conduct of the cases.” In sum, all GM cases will be consolidated in one transferee federal court; and (b) GM retains Feinberg Rozen, LLP to manage a fund to allegedly compensate the GM victims for all “legitimate” claims.
GM ignition switch victims may find the following manner in which BP limited its liability for the BP oil spill of 2010 to be instructive.
Multidistrict Litigation (“MDL”) and the Fund Approach
Judicial economy is undoubtedly well-served by MDL consolidation when scores of similar cases are pending in the courts. Regrettably, for victims of the BP oil spill, the BP Oil Spill Multidistrict Litigation (“MDL 2179”) is a “faux” MDL – i.e., an MDL that limits the liability of the defendants, grants excessive compensation to the members of the Plaintiffs’ Steering Committee (“PSC”) and other counsel performing common benefit work, and fails to adequately compensate the plaintiffs.
MDL 2179 is a “faux” MDL primarily because of: (a) the manner in which Kenneth R. Feinberg was permitted by the JPML and the MDL 2179 Court to administer the BP compensation fund; and (b) the terms and conditions of the BP/PSC class settlement agreement.
MDL 2179 officially started on August 10, 2010. The Transfer Order issued on that date by JPML clearly states: “.. Centralization may also facilitate closer coordination with Kenneth Feinberg’s administration of the BP compensation fund.” The JPML made it clear from the very beginning that the purpose of centralization was not merely to eliminate duplicative discovery, prevent inconsistent pretrial rulings, and conserve the resources of the parties, their counsel, and the judiciary; and serve the convenience of the parties and witnesses and promote the more just and efficient conduct of the BP oil spill cases. Here, the purpose of centralization was to maximize judicial economy via the creation of a “faux” class settlement wrapped in a “faux” MDL.
From the very beginning, the purpose of MDL 2179 was to replace democratic adversarial litigation with a fund approach to compensating victims of the BP oil spill. The vast majority of BP oil spill victims will never have their day in court. Judicial economy, rather than justice, is the primary objective.
The fund approach to resolving mass claims, i.e., those claims resulting from the BP oil spill incident, ought to be viewed with a significant degree of concern. The precedent established by the JPML and the MDL 2179 Court is clear: A “Responsible Party” under the Oil Pollution Act of 1990 (“OPA 90”) may now enter into a contract with a politically well-connected third party “Claims Administrator,” i.e., Kenneth R. Feinberg and Feinberg Rozen, LLP, d/b/a Gulf Coast Claims Facility (“GCCF”). This third party “Administrator / Straw Person,” directly and excessively compensated by the party responsible for the oil spill incident, may totally disregard OPA 90, operate the claims process of the responsible party as fraudulently and negligently as it desires for the sole purpose of limiting the liability of, and providing closure to, the responsible party, and the third party “Administrator / Straw Person” shall never be held accountable for its tortious acts.
The operation of the GCCF has allowed BP to control, manage, and settle its liabilities on highly preferential terms; has permitted members of the MDL 2179 PSC, who are directly appointed by Judge Barbier, to be excessively compensated for merely negotiating a collusive settlement agreement; and has enabled judges to clear their dockets of large numbers of cases. In sum, fund approaches to resolving massive liabilities shift power over claims resolution entirely into the hands of self-interested parties and largely evade judicial scrutiny and oversight.
As noted above, judicial economy is undoubtedly well-served by MDL consolidation when scores of similar cases are pending in the courts. Nevertheless, the excessive delay and marginalization of juror fact finding (i.e., dearth of jury trials) associated with traditional MDL practice are developments that cannot be defended. The appropriate focus for fund resolution of mass claims should be justice for the claimants, not merely judicial economy and closure for the corporate misfeasor.
Kenneth Feinberg’s Administration of the BP Compensation Fund
On August 23, 2010, Feinberg Rozen, LLP, doing business as GCCF, replaced the claims process which BP had established to fulfill its obligations as a responsible party pursuant to OPA 90.
Kenneth Feinberg used the fear of costly and protracted litigation to coerce victims of the BP oil spill to accept grossly inadequate settlements from GCCF. During town hall meetings organized to promote GCCF, Feinberg repeatedly told victims of the BP oil spill, “the litigation route in court will mean uncertainty, years of delay and a big cut for the lawyers.” “I am determined to come up with a system that will be more generous, more beneficial, than if you go and file a lawsuit.” “It is not in your interest to tie up you and the courts in years of uncertain protracted litigation when there is an alternative that has been created,” Feinberg said. He added, “I take the position, if I don’t find you eligible, no court will find you eligible.”
GCCF employed two strategies to limit BP’s liability:
(a) an “Expedited Emergency Advance Payment (“EAP”) Denial” strategy. This strategy is as follows: “Fail to verify, investigate, and appraise the amount of loss claimed by the claimant in the EAP claim and deny the EAP claim without ever requesting supporting documentation from the claimant;” and
(b) a “Delay, Deny, Defend” strategy against legitimate oil spill victims. This strategy, commonly used by unscrupulous insurance companies, is as follows: “Delay payment, starve claimant, and then offer the economically and emotionally-stressed claimant a miniscule percent of all damages to which the claimant is entitled. If the financially ruined claimant rejects the settlement offer, he or she may sue.”
The ultimate objective of Feinberg’s “Expedited EAP Denial” strategy and “Delay, Deny, Defend” strategy was to limit BP’s liability by obtaining a signed “Release and Covenant Not to Sue” from as many BP oil spill victims as possible.
The “Release and Covenant Not to Sue” requirement forces economically and emotionally-stressed victims of the BP oil spill to sign a release and covenant not to sue in order to receive a miniscule payment amount for all damages, including future damages, they incur as a result of the BP oil spill. Feinberg’s “Release and Covenant Not to Sue” requirement violates OPA 90, State contract law, and is contrary to public policy.
The “Expedited EAP Denial” strategy and “Delay, Deny, Defend” strategy, although unconscionable, have proven to be very effective for Feinberg and BP:
The GCCF data indicates that a total of 574,379 unique claimants filed claims with the GCCF during the period from approximately August 23, 2010 to March 7, 2012. The GCCF paid only 221,358 of these claimants. In sum, the GCCF denied payment to approximately 61.46% of the claimants who filed claims; the average total amount paid per claimant was $27,466.47.
The status report data further indicates that the GCCF paid a total of 230,370 claimants who filed claims with the GCCF during the “Phase II” period. Of these, 195,109 were either Quick Pay or Full Review Final payments; only 35,261 were Interim payments. In sum, the GCCF forced 84.68% of the claimants to sign a release and covenant not to sue in which the claimant agreed not to sue BP and all other potentially liable parties; only 15.31% of the claimants were not required to sign a release and covenant not to sue in order to be paid. Feinberg’s “Release and Covenant Not to Sue” excluded approximately 200,000 BP oil spill victims from the MDL 2179 Economic and Property Damages Class Settlement Agreement.
The BP/PSC Class Settlement Agreement
BP and the PSC reported settlement negotiations began “in earnest” in February 2011 for two distinct class action settlements: a Medical Benefits Settlement and an Economic and Property Damages Settlement.” In sum, the PSC initiated settlement negotiations “in earnest” merely four (4) months after Judge Barbier appointed members to the PSC. Clearly, the MDL 2179 class settlement was not achieved in the full context of adversarial litigation.
There is little doubt that any class settlement agreement which: (a) excludes approximately 200,000 claimants from the settlement benefits because they had been forced to sign an unconscionable “Release and Covenant Not to Sue;” and
(b) excessively compensates members of the PSC and other counsel performing common benefit work is neither “fair, adequate, and reasonable” nor “free from collusion.”
In sum, a faux class settlement wrapped in a faux MDL is not right for America because it:
(a) allows judicial economy to replace justice; and
(b) denies access to the courts by permitting the desires and influence of corporations with deep pockets, and politically well-connected defendants, to trump the legal rights of the individual.
GM victims and BP victims deserve better!
N.B. – BP paid Feinberg Rozen, LLP a sum of $1.25 million per month to limit its liability (“administer the BP oil spill victims’ compensation fund”).
UPDATE (April 25, 2014): Plaintiffs File Motion to Hold Kenneth R. Feinberg, et al. Accountable for Financially Ruining Them