How GM’s Deadly Ignition Switch Came to Light Highlights the Importance of the Civil Justice System
General Motors has been making headlines recently, and new CEO Mary Barra undoubtedly wishes that weren’t the case. Early this April, she was called before committee hearings in both chambers of Congress, and pressed to explain why the automaker had failed to warn the public or take corrective action on a faulty ignition switch linked to at least 13 deaths.
The defective ignition switch was built into, or used as a repair part, in several million small cars sold in the U.S. and Canada, including the Saturn Ion (model years 2003-2007), Chevy Cobalt (2005-2010), Pontiac G5 (2006-2010), Chevy HHR (2006-2011), Pontiac Solstice (2006-2010), and Saturn Sky (2007-2010). The defect posed serious dangers: it allowed the car’s ignition to move without warning from “run” to “accessory” mode, stalling the engine, even if moving at speed in traffic. The ignition switch moving on its own to accessory mode would not only stall the engine, but also disable the power steering, anti-lock braking, and airbag systems.
At recent Congressional hearings GM’s new CEO had no good explanation of why GM had not addressed the defect earlier even though the defect was first uncovered by GM dealers about 10 years ago through consumer complaints. Nonetheless, despite federal law that requires such hazards to be reported to the Department of Transportation’s National Highway Transportation Safety Administration (NHTSA) within five days, GM never disclosed the defect. Making GM’s position even worse were a few other awkward facts: the faulty switch was re-designed in 2006, but no recall sought, and the new switch was given the same part number as the defective one. As a result, the defective older version of the switch may have been used when later model GM cars were repaired.
GM’s new CEO wasn’t the only one coming in for heat during the Capitol Hill hearings. Like GM, NHTSA had apparently known of the hazard for years, but had done little or nothing about it. Agency staff had apparently on two separate occasions proposed starting a probe of the problem, but the probe never actually launched.
So how was this decade-old defect, affecting millions of American customers, finally exposed? The answer: not through industry self-policing, government regulatory oversight, consumer activists or even press investigations. Instead, the individual most responsible for getting the scandalous story before Congress, regulators and the public was a member of a sometimes disparaged group: personal injury trial lawyers.
A solo practitioner in Marietta, Georgia was retained by the parents of Brooke Melton, a pediatric nurse killed in 2010, on her 29th birthday. She died when her 2005 Chevy Cobalt lost control and crashed on a two-lane road in Hiram, Georgia. The lawyer, experienced in auto defect cases, learned the Cobalt’s vehicle data recorder showed the ignition switch had been in accessory mode at the time of the crash. He also discovered that the crash victim just four days earlier had taken the car to a local dealer, who said it had fixed her complaint of a stalling engine.
Quizzing GM engineers and wading through technical documents, the victim’s lawyer found out that GM engineers knew of the ignition switch problem by 2004, at the latest. The lawyer also uncovered the company’s later substitution of an upgraded switch using the same number as the defective switch. After the case of Melton v. GM was settled, the Plaintiff’s lawyer also wrote to NHTSA, urging the agency to take action on the defect.
So if you’re ever tempted to wonder whether a personal injury lawsuit can play a positive role in protecting the health and safety of the nation’s consumers – i.e., all of us – you may want to recall how one lawyer in Georgia, acting for one bereaved family, managed to bring to light a serious safety hazard which the manufacturer and government regulators failed to address in a modern day version of David and Goliath.