A prominent lawyer, who first brought evidence of the ignition-switch malfunctions to light two years ago, has asked a judge to remove the lead counsel for the plaintiffs in the multi-district litigation cases.
Lance Cooper, a Georgia lawyer who represents the family of ignition-switch victim Brooke Melton, accused co-lead counsel Robert Hilliard, Steve Berman and Elizabeth Cabraser of misconduct in a motion filed Monday in US District Court. Cooper says Hilliard has deliberately mismanaged the case in an effort to maintain control over the proceedings and increase billable hours. Cooper asked a judge to appoint new lead counsel and reconsider the current trial schedule.
While lawyers fighting with lawyers isn't exactly new, the fractured nature of the relationship between two who ostensibly should be on the same side is a second blow for plaintiffs, who already received a setback Friday when Hilliard called off a trial involving plaintiff Robert Scheuer, an Oklahoma man who may have presented doctored evidence at trial. Cooper's motion was blunt.
"It unfortunately comes on the heels of the embarrassing retreat in Scheuer, a loss that should not have occurred in a case that should never have been filed."
"This is no easy motion. But it is the right motion. It has to be made," Cooper wrote in Monday's court filing with the district court in Southern New York. "It unfortunately comes on the heels of the embarrassing retreat in Scheuer, a loss that should not have occurred in a case that should never have been filed, let alone gone to trial. It is also the culmination of a long series of poor decisions and mismanagement."
In putting the Scheuer case first, Cooper alleges Hilliard engineered the trial schedule in a way that maximizes his own profits and secures his position in control of future cases. Choosing any number of other cases would have set a stronger tone for the ongoing litigation, Cooper said, a position he felt was all the more apparent after the Scheuer case fell apart.
Specifically, Cooper alleges that Hilliard pushed back a case involving James Yingling, a Pennsylvania father of five who was killed in a Saturn Ion because Yingling's primary lawyer would not agree to pay Hilliard's firm 50 percent of attorneys' fees generated in order to be the leadoff case.
Hilliard could not immediately be reached for comment, but following the end of the Scheuer trial last week, he expressed regret the case had gone badly, telling the Associated Press, "especially one such as this where the concerns regarding the underlying safety of certain GM's vehicles are legitimate and real."
GM has acknowledged flaws in its ignition switchers are responsible for at least 124 deaths and 275 injuries. The company settled those 399 cases through a victim compensation fund administered by Ken Feinberg. It received more than 4,000 claims related to the ignition-switch defect.