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U.S. judge appoints lead counsel for GM ignition-switch cases

By Jessica Dye

NEW YORK (Reuters) - A U.S. judge has appointed two lawyers who led cases against Toyota Motor Corp <7203.T> and a plaintiffs’ attorney from Texas to lead litigation against General Motors Co related to a faulty ignition switch that prompted the recall of millions of vehicles this year.

U.S. District Judge Jesse Furman in the Southern District of New York, who is overseeing more than 100 cases against GM, on Friday tapped attorneys Steve Berman, Elizabeth Cabraser and Robert Hilliard as co-lead counsel.

Hilliard was among the first attorneys to sue GM following its announcement in February that it was recalling millions of vehicles because of a problem with the ignition switch that could cause it to slip out of position, leading to stalled vehicles and disabled air bags, power steering and power brakes.

"I’m ready to roll up my sleeves and get to the bottom of the fraud and who’s responsible for a generation’s worth of losses," he told Reuters on Friday.

The lead lawyers will be expected to invest substantial time and resources in the high-profile litigation, in hopes of recovering a share of legal fees from any settlement or judgment against GM.

GM's faulty ignition switches have been linked to at least 13 deaths, and the automaker is under investigation by U.S. safety regulators, Congress and the U.S. Department of Justice over its failure to detect the problems for more than a decade.

Berman and Cabraser were among the lead plaintiffs' lawyers in litigation against Toyota over acceleration problems starting in 2010. In 2012, Toyota settled economic-loss claims stemming from its acceleration-related recalls in a deal valued at $1.6 billion. The company is in talks to settle personal-injury and wrongful-death cases.

Berman said in an email to Reuters that he was honored by the appointment. Cabraser said she looked forward to working with the other lead lawyers both for victims of crashes linked to the switch and customers who said they suffered economic losses, such as reduced vehicle value.

Berman and Cabraser, along with another lead lawyer for Toyota plaintiffs, Mark Robinson, had been appointed by Furman to serve as temporary co-lead counsel at the outset of the switch litigation.

Robinson was appointed to the executive committee, along with other well-known plaintiffs’ lawyers including David Boies and Joseph Rice.

Also serving on that committee will be Lance Cooper, lawyer for the parents of Brooke Melton, who was killed in a 2010 crash that their lawsuit said was caused by the switch. That lawsuit helped expose the switch issue, leading to the first of several switch-related recalls by GM.

Friday’s order followed a marathon hearing in federal court on Monday, in which nearly 40 lawyers appeared before Furman to seek one of 15 positions leading the litigation.

Furman has set the next status conference in the cases for Sept. 4.

(Editing by Alexia Garamfalvi and Matthew Lewis)

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