With the US Justice Department, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and dozens of lawsuits barking at its heels, the Detroit auto giant has agreed to pay a $35 million fine after admitting in January 2014 that it had violated the law and failed to disclose a deadly ignition switch fault the company had known about for 10 years.
However, GM still maintains to this day that it had no role in the death of 29-year-old Brooke Melton. Her 2005 Chevy Cobalt skidded out of control on a highway in Georgia four years ago. An investigation revealed Melton’s vehicle was one of the millions of GM products equipped with a faulty ignition switch that slipped into the accessory position killing the engine and subsequently disabling the airbags.
A month prior to the faulty ignition admission from GM, the Melton family settled their initial wrongful death lawsuit against GM for an undisclosed amount.
Incensed by the recent admissions from GM, and its CEO Mary Barra, the Meltons and their lawyer, Lance Cooper, from The Cooper Firm in Marietta, Georgia, have now refiled their lawsuit claiming that the “automaker concealed critical evidence during litigation and allowed its corporate representatives to commit perjury.”
“The Meltons would not have settled their case if they had known of the perjury and concealment of critical evidence,” says Cooper.
“What GM knew 10 years ago was that the key system did not meet their specifications. First of all, it sat too low on the steering column, which allowed drivers’ knees to hit the chain, and when that happened that would cause the key to switch from run to accessory,” says Cooper.
“And the program engineering manager knew that back in 2004. He had experienced that exact problem, and when they looked into trying to address it or solve it, he made the decision for cost reasons not to fix it. That is essentially what happened and they decided to come up with this public statement that even when the ignition turns off that is not a safety concern. That was their position during the Melton case.”
Cooper also represents the Van Pelts whose daughter Haley suffered a brain injury after her Saturn Ion shut off, causing her to slam into a tree in a 2009 crash. Haley Van Pelt’s medical costs have already topped $1 million.
“The main point of all these cases is obviously to help the families, but to also get at the truth. Even though GM has agreed to pay the fine, it is still not a lot of trust that the government will ultimately get at the truth because they haven’t in the past,” says Cooper.
Meanwhile, GM is seeking to avoid faulty ignition switch lawsuits, claiming it is a whole new company since it filed for bankruptcy in 2009 and cannot be held liable for problems the company had before that.
That does not wash with Cooper.
“It is our understanding that GM is going to resolve those even though these were pre-bankruptcy,” says Cooper. “If they don’t, then I assume lawsuits will be filed and the argument will be that even though the bankruptcy went through, GM knew about this potential claim and essentially committed a fraud on the court from not disclosing those potential claims.
“I don’t think GM wants to go through that,” says Cooper. “They have taken such a black eye on all of these injury and death cases that if they were try to seek bankruptcy protection in all those cases, it would probably cause them some serious public relations problems.”
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Lance Cooper is the founding partner of The Cooper Firm. He practices in all of the firm’s practice areas, with an emphasis on product liability cases involving automobile design and manufacturing defects. Mr. Cooper was lead counsel for his clients in a large number of civil jury trials, including trials against General Motors, Ford Motor Company, Honda, Toyota, Kia, Continental General Tire, Hilton Hotels, and the Department of Transportation. He has successfully prosecuted hundreds of cases and has received numerous multimillion-dollar jury verdicts and settlements.