When Brooke Melton’s 2005 Chevrolet Cobalt suddenly lost power and crashed on a rainy night, killing her on her 29th birthday, her parents knew in their hearts that a defect in her automobile was to blame.
The same problem – her car stalled while she was driving it – had happened to Brooke just three days before, prompting her father, Ken Melton, to insist they take it to a dealership for repairs. After the fatal crash, the gut feeling Mr. Melton and his wife Beth had that the car was to blame for their daughter’s death was so strong, they were compelled to sue General Motors. They hired trial lawyer Lance Cooper to represent them.
Although the Meltons faced an uphill legal battle (the police report stated that Brooke was driving too fast for road conditions) their case would become pivotal in exposing GM’s mishandling of a seemingly small but extremely deadly ignition switch defect.
The efforts of the Melton family and their lawyer to find the truth about their daughter’s death blew the lid off a problem that GM had successfully concealed since 2001 – a faulty ignition switch that allowed keys to slip into the “accessory” or “off” position, resulting in a loss of power steering, anti-lock brakes, and deactivating the airbags.
An engineering expert hired by the Meltons and Mr. Cooper found that the data recorder in Brooke’s car showed the vehicle’s ignition was in the “accessory” position at the time of the crash, meaning that her car had no power and was likely impossible to control at 58 mph, the speed it was travelling when it spun out and hit an oncoming vehicle before rolling into a creek.
Investigators working for the Melton case also found that GM made modifications to the detent plunger and spring inside the ignition column, making the part longer so that the key would be less prone to slip out of place, indicating that at least some key GM employees knew about the defect and attempted correct it without alerting customers or federal regulators, as U.S. safety regulations mandate.
Those findings finally prompted GM to recall 2.6 million vehicles, which it began doing in February. Soon after, the company became the subject of multiple civil and criminal investigations.
Before the recall, GM made a surprise move to settle the Melton case after spending two years disputing it, accepting a deal that it had previously rejected.
Now the Meltons are fighting to reopen their case.
“We now know they had some of the truth but not all of the truth,” Mr. Cooper told CNN.
The Beasley Allen law firm of Montgomery, Ala., has now joined forces with the Cooper Firm to help find justice for other families whose lives have been shattered by GM’s ignition switch defect. Together they will pursue and file personal injury and wrongful death cases related to the defective ignition switch. Beasley Allen was heavily involved in the Toyota sudden acceleration litigation and tried the lawsuit in Oklahoma that caused the Japanese automaker to change its litigation strategy and start settling cases.
“I am proud to be a lawyer whose practice is devoted to helping folks who are in need of assistance,” said Beasley Allen founding shareholder Jere Beasley. “Representing the families of persons who have been killed or permanently injured and impaired gives me the opportunity to really help folks who need the help of a trial lawyer. The Toyota cases and now those involving General Motors make me realize how important our civil justice system and my role in it really is. Without the courts and juries, corporate victims like the courageous Melton family wouldn’t have a chance to get justice.”