Settled General Motors Ignition Defect Lawsuit May Come Back to be Reopened

Brooke Melton, 29, died allegedly because of the General Motors’ ignition switch flaw. Her case had been pending for a period of time when it was settled by General Motors in October 2013. The settlement was reached before General Motors was found to have been downplaying and otherwise concealing the ignition switch problems from consumers and lawyers involved in these tragic cases.

Although the Melton case was settled, the Melton family lawyers want to reopen the case and show that General Motors was guilty of fraudulent concealment regarding the switch problem. If the Meltons are successful in reopening this case, other settled injury or death cases arising from the ignition switch defect may be reopened for further consideration.

Today the lawsuits or claims management of the many ignition switch injury cases are being handled by attorney Kenneth Feinberg, whose group has settled hundreds of the GM death and injury claims from crashes that were caused by the ignition switch defect.

In the Melton case, the family settled for $5 million, but now survivors are alleging that a General Motors engineer, who designed the switch in question, lied under oath and that the company covered up the problem with the ignition switch for years.

There are 2.6 million ignition switches in older Chevrolet Cobalts, Saturn Ions and other GM compact cars sold from 2003 to 2010. The ignition switches can switch from “run” to “accessory,” causing engines to stall. When the engine is stalled, the power steering and brakes go out, making the cars very difficult to control; the stall disables the airbags.

The Melton case has a difficult course yet to come. Generally, judges are opposed to reopening settled cases. General Motors has moved the case from Cobb County, Ga., to the federal courts. By doing this, the company is avoiding the judge who presided over the case in Cobb County. This judge also has extensive knowledge of General Motors’ conduct.

The Melton case arises from a March 2010 crash involving a GM Cobalt driven by Brooke Melton that went into a spin on Route 92 near Atlanta. It was 7:30 pm on a rainy Wednesday night. Another car hit the passenger side of the Cobalt, knocking it off the road and into a creek. Melton, who was wearing her seatbelt, was killed.

At first the police thought she was driving too fast and hit standing water. In fact, Melton faced a legal claim from the other driver. The Melton family hired attorney Lance Cooper who sued General Motors because Melton’s car had stalled inexplicably a few days before the crash.

Sensors in the car made it clear that the ignition switch slipped into accessory mode before the fatal March 2010 crash. The Melton family lawsuit alleged that Melton lost control of her car because the engine stalled. In the discovery stage of the Melton case, Cooper determined that an engineer knew years before Melton’s crash that the Cobalt’s ignition switch could easily slip out of the run position. No warnings were sent to GM drivers for a recall; instead, General Motors sent dealers a bulletin telling them how to fix the problem but only if customers complained.

During the pre-trial depositions, Cooper presented evidence from an engineering expert who found that parts inside the Cobalt switches had been changed after Melton’s car was manufactured. The change tightened the switches and made them unlikely to slip out of “run.”

In one deposition, a GM engineer told Cooper that he knew nothing about the changes in the switches. He also claimed that he never authorized part maker Delphi Corporation to alter the switches.

Cooper alleged that the GM engineer lied under oath and that GM’s lawyers concealed that lie. Cooper said, “It’s all part of the cover-up.” Although the Melton family believed they were on to something, they agreed to settle with General Motors before trial. In fact, a report that was released by General Motors said that its own lawyers warned of a “substantial adverse verdict in a trial in the Melton case.”

Later in a Congressional hearing held in Washington, General Motors CEO Mary Barra was told that the GM engineer in the Melton case had lied and perjured himself. In fact, Senator Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., said, “Corporations think they can get away from hiding documents from litigants, and there will be no consequences.”

It was a month after that Congressional hearing that the Meltons filed a motion in Cobb County, Ga., maintaining that the Meltons would not have settled had they known that the GM engineer lied and GM covered it up. The Melton family representative said that had they known about the cover-up claim, they would have been sought punitive damages against GM that would have far exceeded the $5 million settlement.

In 2014, General Motors dismissed 15 employees after former U.S. Attorney Anton Volukas of Chicago issued a report blaming its failure to recall the cars on a dysfunctional corporate culture. The GM engineer and some lawyers were among those terminated.

If the Meltons are successful in reopening this case, other injury cases that have been settled could be reopened and go to trial. This would increase the risk to General Motors of being hit with punitive damage verdicts.

There is something else here too and that is General Motor’s bankruptcy filing in July 2009. Claims and lawsuits that predate July 2009 would fall under the “old GM” umbrella and be protected under the filed Chapter 11 bankruptcy. General Motors is seeking to use the bankruptcy to protect it from claims that occurred before 2009, yet lawyers want all claims to go against the “new General Motors,” which has set aside as much as $27 billion in reserve to handle this stunning rise in complaints, injuries, deaths and recalls. One General Motors spokesperson has said that the company is voluntarily compensating the victims. The Melton case occurred after the General Motors bankruptcy. According to the Melton family attorney, General Motors knew about the defective switches when the Cobalt first rolled off the assembly line, yet it has “essentially done nothing to correct the problem for the last nine years.”

Kreisman Law Offices has been handling automotive defect cases, wrongful death cases and General Motors defect cases for individuals and families who have been harmed, injured or died for more than 38 years in and around Chicago, Cook County and its surrounding areas, including Arlington Heights, Antioch, Grayslake, Gurnee, Schiller Park, Berwyn, Western Springs, St. Charles, Geneva, Aurora, Carpentersville, Maywood, Skokie, Alsip, Blue Island, Chicago Heights and Calumet City, Ill.

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