Opinion: It Takes Attorneys to Have Civil Justice

* Question: How did tragic defects in GM cars come to the public’s attention?

* Answer: The persistence of a Georgia attorney.

General Motors has recalled 29 million vehicles this year for faulty ignition switches, air bags that fail to deploy and loss of power steering. However, it has now been discovered that GM knew about the ignition switch problems at least ten years ago, and maybe as early as 2001. What forced GM to finally issue the recalls and come clean to the public about life-threatening defects in its vehicles?

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration was “fully aware of the [ignition switch] defect and its consequences” as early as 2007, according to the nonprofit Center for Auto Safety. Yet the NHTSA failed to investigate or take any action that would have resulted in a public warning or product recall.

So what caused the mighty General Motors, maker of Chevrolet, Buick, Cadillac and several other car and truck brands, with annual revenue of $155 billion, to begin issuing recalls this year?

It is primarily the result of the work of a single Georgia attorney, Lance Cooper of Marietta, GA. Cooper represents the parents of Brooke Melton, who died in 2010 while driving a Chevy Cobalt.

Cooper is definitely David vs. GM’s Goliath. It is said that Cooper took on GM in the Melton case primarily with the help of one paralegal. His website lists just two other attorneys in the firm. However, Sean Kane, president of Safety Research and Strategies, a Massachusetts vehicle research firm, said Cooper “single-handedly set the stage for this recall.”

“The Melton case has unleashed a world of hurt on General Motors – an investigation by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, Congressional oversight, class action lawsuits and general opprobrium,” says the Safety Research and Strategies website.

Lost Control of the Car

Brooke Melton, a pediatric nurse, was killed on her 29th birthday in March 2010. She was driving a Chevy Cobalt on a Georgia highway about 30 miles from Atlanta. The Cobalt suddenly lost power, veered in front of opposing traffic and collided with another car. Melton’s car then traveled off the highway and crashed into a creek. She died from her injuries.

Passengers in the other car sued Melton’s estate. Although Melton was driving under the speed limit and was driving sober, the fact that she lost control of the car and it swerved into oncoming traffic opened the door for such a suit. Melton’s parents hired Cooper to defend their daughter’s estate.

In his investigation of the car’s black box data recorder, Cooper discovered that the ignition key had shifted and turned the motor off a few seconds before the crash. Cooper argued that as a result, Melton lost power steering and power brakes and thus lost control of the car.

Wrongful Death Lawsuit

Cooper filed a wrongful death complaint against General Motors in the State Court of Cobb County, GA, in June 2011. The complaint accused GM of negligent design, testing and manufacturing and of failure to warn consumers.

Just a few days before her fatal accident, Melton had taken her Cobalt into the shop, complaining that the car seemed to sometimes just stop running while she was driving. She received the car back from the dealership one day before her accident.

Cooper battled General Motors for two years to obtain documents and depositions. He learned that GM had developed a plastic snap-on key cover to address the problem of keys shifting out of position in GM cars. In a technical bulletin sent out in 2005, dealers were advised to provide the key cover to customers who complained about ignition issues, but they were not instructed to issue them to all owners of the defective cars. Melton was not given one of the snap-on key covers, which might have prevented her accident and saved her life.

After more than two years of litigation, GM settled the case in September 2013, terms undisclosed. Five months later, in February 2014, GM announced the first of 60 recalls it has issued this year for 29 million GM vehicles, including more than 17 million that have ignition switch problems.

Reopening the Case

Still representing Melton’s parents and her estate, Cooper recently filed a state court petition to reopen the case, despite the settlement. They have charged General Motors with fraudulent concealment and perjury. They claim that new evidence has disclosed that GM hid documents from them and that a GM engineer lied while being deposed. They say they would not have accepted the settlement if GM had not deceived them.

Cooper has said that General Motors settled the case when it did, because the company knew that it would soon be announcing recalls, which could have significantly driven up the value of the Meltons’ lawsuit.

If We Want Civil Justice, We Need Attorneys

Can consumers count on multibillion-dollar public companies to faithfully reveal product defects, if such revelations might save lives but might also significantly impact revenue and share price? General Motors failed to make such a disclosure for more than 10 years.

Can consumers count on government regulators to always have their backs and investigate possible product defects, including the products of powerful corporations? That’s what the NHTSA was supposed to do but failed to do regarding GM ignition switches. When companies are not truthful with consumers and government regulators fail to do their jobs, average citizens like the parents of Brooke Melton can take on the giants like General Motors and they can win. But to do so, they have to have a good attorney.

As Cooper said in an interview: “This is the poster-child case for why the civil justice system is necessary. NHTSA knew about this for a number of years, and they didn’t get to the bottom of it.”

If you or a loved one has experienced serious injury or death in a GM car that may have had an ignition or airbag malfunction, contact our office. You may be entitled to financial compensation for your harms and losses.

For more information about GM lawsuits, see our webpage: “Ignition, Airbag Problems in Millions of GM Cars Cause Deaths, Injuries.”