Judge Rules Attorney-Client Privilege To Protect GM Interview Notes

Jan 15, 2015 06:00 PM EST | Jordan Ecarma

It's a new year, but General Motors is still dealing with some very old problems related to the faulty ignition switches installed on around 2.59 million small cars.

In a positive turn for the automaker, a district judge ruled today that notes by GM's lawyers are protected from the plaintiff's lawyers by attorney-client privilege, Reuters reported. Interview notes from the "Valukas report" are protected, said U.S. District Judge Jesse Furman in Manhattan.

Lawyers hired by GM to produce an internal report on the ignition-switch debacle were headed by Anton Valukas, chairman of law firm Jenner & Block and the inspiration for the report's name.

The report itself is public and comprises more than 350 interviews with 230 witnesses; however, meticulous interview notes prepared by each lawyer are protected under the ruling.

Plaintiffs' lawyers contended that because the report was not confidential, the notes did not count as legal advice and should be turned over.  

Furman said GM had a "valid claim" for keeping the notes, writing that "the cost of withholding the materials is outweighed by the benefits to society of encouraging full and frank communication" between lawyer and client.

The ignition switches in models such as the Chevrolet Cobalt and Saturn Ion have been related to at least 45 deaths. If the driver's knee hit the ignition, the faulty switch could turn off the vehicle while driving, simultaneously disabling the air bags.

Earlier this week, GM received 141 more compensation claims for alleged injuries and deaths in its vehicles, making a total of 2,710; the number of claims found eligible by the carmaker's compensation fund has reached 112.

Along with the 45 confirmed deaths, the fund spearheaded by high-profile attorney Kenneth Feinberg has found seven severe injuries and 60 other injuries eligible for compensation. GM has set aside $400 million to provide restitution to those injured and the families of those killed, but the automaker has said the figure may increase.

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