Products Liability Law Daily High Court rejects GM’s attempt to avoid ignition switch suits
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Monday, April 24, 2017

High Court rejects GM’s attempt to avoid ignition switch suits

By Susan Lasser, J.D.

The U.S. Supreme Court has denied a petition by General Motors LLC asking it to reverse a decision by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit ruling that the sale of so-called "Old GM’s" assets as part of its 2009 bankruptcy did not enjoin certain claims against "New GM" relating to the motor vehicle manufacturer’s ignition switch controversy. The Second Circuit had reversed a bankruptcy court’s decision which enjoined these claims, finding that the claimant buyers had been prejudiced by Old GM’s failure to provide adequate notice of the grounds of potential claims against it and, therefore, enforcing the sale order would violate procedural due process under the circumstances. As a result of the High Court’s rejection, the lawsuits stemming from pre-bankruptcy injuries and losses will move forward (General Motors LLC v. Elliott, filed December 13, 2016; cert. denied April 24, 2017).

GM filed for bankruptcy in June 2009, and its assets were sold to a new entity ("New GM") pursuant to Sec. 363 of the U.S. Bankruptcy Code. The sale agreement provided that New GM would purchase the assets "free and clear" of any liabilities of Old GM except as provided in the sale agreement, and the bankruptcy court’s sale order barred any successor liability on the part of New GM. Old GM sent direct mail notice of the proposed sale order to known creditors (those who had contracted with or filed a demand or claim against it) and posted notice to unknown creditors in various publications. A number of objections were raised by creditors, but were rejected by the bankruptcy court, which found New GM to be a good faith purchaser and approved the sale.

After New GM began recalling cars in 2014 to address apparent defects in the ignition switches in numerous vehicle models, some of which pre-dated the sale, over 100 class action suits were filed against New GM. The plaintiffs complained that while in motion, their vehicles’ ignition could accidentally turn off, shutting down the engine, disabling power steering and braking, and deactivating the airbags. New GM moved to enforce the sale order, asserting that these lawsuits were barred under the "free and clear" provision of Sec. 363. The bankruptcy court administering the GM bankruptcy found that the defects were known to, or reasonably ascertainable by, Old GM prior to the sale order and, therefore, the plaintiffs were entitled to actual notice rather than just publication notice. However, finding that the plaintiffs had not been prejudiced by the form of notice, the court agreed with New GM that it could not be sued for ignition switch claims that could have been brought against Old GM [see Products Liability Law Daily’s April 16, 2015 analysis]. The plaintiffs appealed, and the bankruptcy court certified the case for direct appeal to the Second Circuit.

Second Circuit decision. The Second Circuit reversed the portion of the bankruptcy court’s order enforcing the sale order to the extent that it enjoined the claims related to the ignition switch defect, finding that the claimants had been shown prejudice from the lack of direct notice. It stated that it could not say with assurance that the outcome of the sale proceedings would have been the same if Old GM had disclosed the ignition switch defect at that time and the claimants had raised objections to the "free and clear" provision in the sale agreement. It also remanded for additional proceedings the claims based on non-ignition switch defects [see Products Liability Law Daily’s July 14, 2016 analysis].

Petition. In its petition, the automaker had asked the following questions: (1) Whether the Due Process Clause requires a debtor selling its assets under Section 363 to notify its creditors not only of the details of the sale, as required by Section 363, but also of the grounds for potential claims against the seller; and (2) Whether a seller’s failure to provide potential creditors with adequate notice of a Section 363 sale deprives the good-faith purchaser of Section 363’s "free and clear" protections [see Products Liability Law Daily’s December 19, 2016 analysis].

GM argued that the Second Circuit committed two fundamental errors in finding that the due process clause of the U.S. Constitution requires more notice by debtors proposing sales under Sec. 363 than is required by the Bankruptcy Code, and that the remedy for this failure by the seller is to punish the good-faith purchaser by imposing successor liability upon it. The purpose of Sec. 363, GM asserted, is to allow a debtor’s assets to be sold as quickly as possible in order to maximize the value of the estate instead of allowing them to decline in value during the pendency of various legal proceedings. The "free and clear" provision of Sec. 363 allows debtors to sell their assets at maximum value because sellers would be reluctant to purchase them if doing so would potentially expose them to the same liabilities that caused the debtor to go bankrupt. GM said that the Bankruptcy Code provides for only limited, "streamlined" notice of a Section 363 sale, rather than notice of all claims about which the debtor knew or reasonably should have known, because a Sec. 363 sale does not extinguish a creditor’s claims, and that the burden of notice falls only upon sellers and not upon purchasers.

GM asserted that the government owners that purchased the assets of Old GM agreed that New GM would honor certain warranties and satisfy certain claims of Old GM, but insisted on acquiring the assets free and clear of all liabilities not expressly named in the agreement, making the free and clear provision integral to the sale. The Second Circuit’s decision could not only undermine one of the biggest bankruptcies in history, the manufacturer argued, but also deprive future bankruptcy estates of a critical tool to protect creditors. According to GM, Old GM had lost over $9 billion in the first quarter of 2009 alone, and delaying the sale to investigate all possible claims that could have been brought against the company by 70 million vehicle owners and then providing direct mail notice to each of these owners describing these possible claims would have caused a further decline in Old GM’s position. With the company facing immediate liquidation, this result would have left all creditors noticeably worse off, it said. The manufacturer had also contended that the result would be unfair to other stakeholders in the GM bankruptcy because it would allow plaintiffs, alone among creditors, to circumvent the priority scheme and seek payment in full from the purchasers.

Press statement. In a statement issued after the Supreme Court’s denial, Robert Hilliard, co-lead counsel for the plaintiffs in the GM Ignition Switch multi-district litigation, said that "[h]undreds of death and injury cases have been frozen in place for years as GM wrongly tried to hide behind a fake bankruptcy," and that these cases, "trapped by GM’s bankruptcy," will be tried to a verdict in each plaintiff’s home state.

The case is Docket No. 16-764.

Attorneys: Paul D. Clement (Kirkland & Ellis LLP) for General Motors LLC. Gary Peller (Georgetown University Law Center) for Celestine Elliott.

Companies: General Motors LLC

MainStory: TopStory SupremeCtNews SCLIssuesNews DefensesLiabilityNews MotorVehiclesNews MotorEquipmentNews

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