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Here’s who helps decide GM’s fate in next 100 car crash cases

(Bloomberg) -- GM’s fate in a personal injury trial that will help shape hundreds of cases to come lies in the hands of a speech pathologist, a customer service rep and a man who has served as a juror eight times, among others.

Robert Scheuer, whose 2003 Saturn Ion ran off an Oklahoma highway in May 2014 and smashed into a tree, is the first plaintiff in General Motors Co.’s ignition switch scandal to have his case heard by a jury. Flawed switches could be jarred into the “accessory” position, shutting off the engine, disabling power steering and brakes and preventing air bags from deploying. 

Afflicted by neck and back pain, Scheuer missed 169 days of work, can’t lift more than 20 pounds and needs surgery, said his lawyer, Robert Hilliard, the lead attorney for the personal injury and death claims in the so-called multidistrict litigation. The trial begins Tuesday morning in federal court in Manhattan.

America’s biggest carmaker faces at least 16 trials on death and injury claims in state and federal courts in the U.S. in 2016. The jury’s reaction to the evidence in the current trial could push either side to settle — or battle out — coming cases and help set the size of any settlements.

The jury, selected Monday, is made up of seven women and five men. It includes a bookkeeper at a tax preparation firm, a clothing saleswoman and an Internet radio executive. 

The eight-time — now nine-time — juror earlier served almost entirely on criminal cases. U.S. District Judge Jesse Furman asked him if he understood that a civil case, like this one, sets the plaintiff’s burden of proof at a preponderance of evidence, instead of the stricter proof beyond a reasonable doubt that a criminal trial demands. He said he did.

One jury candidate excused from the case holds down two jobs — an hourly production job and freelance work to make ends meet — and said he feared he could lose both during the roughly five-week trial. The orderly courtroom grew especially quiet as another prospective juror was excused because she had just lost her boyfriend to a fatal brain injury after he was hit by a vehicle.

Judge Furman, in his preliminary instructions to the freshly chosen jury, took pains to distinguish between the General Motors that filed for bankruptcy protection from creditors in the financial crisis and the company that emerged from it. He explained that New GM, as it came to be called, may be responsible for some but not all of the acts of Old GM.

Related: GM ignition nightmare won't go away, for victims or company

The trial is the first of six bellwethers in Manhattan, so called because they are used to test strategies. Whatever the verdicts, these early trials will push both sides into settlements, said Carl Tobias, a University of Richmond law professor. “You don’t get people to talk until there’s some clarity,’’ he said.

The bellwether process is “actually a settlement tool,’’ Jim Cain, a GM spokesman, said last week. “The verdicts and damages, if any, will help to provide a framework for settlement of similar claims.’’

Cain said GM will deal with the suits one at a time, challenging the plaintiffs to show that the defective switches caused the accidents.

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