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GM opens talks with plaintiffs claiming harm over switch defect

NEW YORK — The lawyer hired by General Motors to explore compensating victims of cars with a defective ignition switch met Friday with a representative of hundreds of people and their families who say they were affected by accidents involving the vehicles.

It was the first step in a process intended to resolve one of GM’s most pressing issues from the recall: How to pay people affected by the faulty switch.

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Kenneth R. Feinberg, an expert in victim compensation who has handled cases like the BP oil spill and the 9/11 fund, met at his office in Washington for nearly four hours with a group led by Robert C. Hilliard, a Texas lawyer, who represents more than 300 clients with wrongful death or personal injury claims, a universe far larger than the 13 deaths and 32 crashes that GM has linked to the problem.

They did not talk about specific cases, and they did not discuss any dollar amounts.

Feinberg said the main goal of the session was to hear what the lawyers had to say and not to negotiate. “The primary purpose was for me to listen as Mr. Hilliard and his colleagues explained the quantity and quality of his claims for physical injury and death only,” he said.

But the session was the most concrete movement yet that GM intended to compensate accident victims and their families — even as it moves to aggressively to shut down other types of cases, including dozens of class-action lawsuits seeking compensation for economic losses like the diminished value of the recalled vehicles.

GM’s bankruptcy reorganization on July 10, 2009, insulated the company from legal claims stemming from accidents that occurred before that date. But the company will not make that distinction with the personal injury and death claims, a GM official said.

Meanwhile, another team of GM lawyers appeared before a federal bankruptcy judge in New York, seeking to dismiss nearly 60 class-action lawsuits brought against the company seeking compensation for economic losses. Judge Robert E. Gerber declined to move immediately to halt any cases and said he would not interfere with plans for a May 29 hearing.

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