General Motors changed an internal part of its defective ignition switches to make it harder for the key to fall out of position and turn off the engine, but didn’t tell drivers or regulators about the fix, according to a recent lawsuit filed by the parents of a Georgia woman who was killed in 2010 when her 2005 Chevy Cobalt shut down unexpectedly and crashed.
The secret fix provides more evidence that GM has known about the ignition switch defect for years but failed to properly notify authorities and warn its drivers.
According to the lawsuit filed by the parents of Brooke Melton, GM made two modifications to the detent plunger and spring inside the ignition column, making the part longer so the key would be less prone to slip out of place. Drivers who had their cars serviced by GM were never told about the repair, nor were federal regulators notified as required by law.
Ms. Melton, a nurse, died on her 29th birthday when her Chevy Cobalt spun out of control and crashed after the engine allegedly turned off, killing the power to her steering, brakes, and air bags, as data from the car’s “black box” indicated.
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) mandates that auto makers notify safety regulators of defects within five days of discovering them. Documents from the Melton lawsuit indicate that the company knew about the faulty ignition switches for at least 10 years before issuing a recall on Feb. 13 of 780,000 2005-2007 Chevy Cobalt and Pontiac G5 vehicles. GM expanded the ignition switch recall on Feb. 25 to include an additional 590,000 2003-2007 Saturn Ion, Chevy HHR, Pontiac Solstice, and Saturn Sky vehicles.
According to NBC, the Melton lawsuit alleges that in 2005 GM engineers first developed a plastic part that could be inserted into the ignition slot to mitigate jangling and the possibility of the key slipping to the “accessory” or “off” position. GM made the part available to all of its dealers but advised them not to install it unless the driver complained. The company chose to adapt this part instead of changing the keys, which GM engineers had considered.
When an engineer working for the Meltons’ attorney started buying ignition columns from GM Cobalts, he discovered that GM had lengthened the detent plunger and spring between 2006 and 2007, making it harder for the key to slip out of position.
GM is now the subject of multiple civil and criminal investigations for its failure to recall the deadly part, which the Center for Auto Safety says may have been responsible for at least 303 deaths.
“I’m still in shock and boiling over with anger,” Ken Melton, Brooke’s father, told NBC. “Anger that they would sweep something like this under the rug.”