General Motors Co. won a significant round Thursday in the escalating legal battles over its handling of a defective ignition switch in millions of its small cars, avoiding an order that would have effectively taken the cars off the road.
The ruling came in a lawsuit filed by Charles and Grace Silvas over compensation for the lost value of their 2006 Chevrolet Cobalt, which was recalled along with 2.6 million other cars that have a faulty switch.
The plaintiffs asked Judge Nelva Gonzales Ramos of US District Court in Corpus Christi, Texas, to force GM to instruct owners not to drive the cars until they were repaired. But the judge denied the motion, saying the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, the federal agency that regulates the nation’s roadways, had primary jurisdiction over the issue.
“The court is of the opinion that NHTSA is far better equipped than this court to address the broad and complex issues of automotive safety and the regulation of automotive companies in connection with a nationwide recall,” Ramos wrote.
GM had vigorously fought the motion for a so-called Park It Now alert, saying it was unnecessary and would “confuse consumers and result in regulatory chaos.”
After the ruling, a GM spokesman, Greg A. Martin, said, “We are pleased that the court denied the motion for preliminary injunction filed in the Silvas case.”
The measure would have heaped more costs on the company, which last week said it would pay about $1.3 billion in the first quarter for all of its recalls, nearly double the initial estimate.
“They made winning a hearing on technical legal arguments more important than saving their own customers’ lives,” said Robert Hilliard, the Silvases’ lawyer. Hilliard is representing plaintiffs in numerous lawsuits against GM, including one seeking class-action status and the recovery of $6 billion to $10 billion for the lost value of the recalled cars.
The defective switch can, if jostled, shift the ignition of a moving car into the “accessory” power mode, potentially shutting down power steering and brakes and disabling air bags. GM has linked the problem to 31 accidents and 13 deaths.
In its formal recall notice as well as in numerous public forums, the company has advised drivers to remove all objects except the vehicle key from key rings to prevent bumping. Taking that step, the company insists, will ensure that the cars are safe to drive.
Senator Richard Blumenthal, a Connecticut Democrat who has been harshly critical of the company’s handling of the ignition safety issue, called on GM to voluntarily advise owners not to drive the recalled cars.