In 2003, Courtland Kelley, Quality Control Manager for the Chevrolet Cavalier, filed a whistleblower lawsuit against his employer General Motors. For years, driven by the conviction that he was doing the right thing for his company and the safety of its customers, the fiercely loyal GM employee sounded warnings about serious safety defects in various models of GM cars and trucks. But year after year, warning after warning, GM failed to take adequate and meaningful action.
On June 6, 2014, Mr. Kelley finished reading the newly released “Valukas Report,” a 325-page document compiled by a GM-hired lawyer who led an investigation of GM’s handling of its deadly ignition switch defect, which the company now blames for causing 13 deaths and 54 crashes.
According to Bloomberg, on page 93 of the Valukas Report, “a GM safety inspector named Steven Oakley is quoted telling investigators that he was too afraid to insist on safety concerns with the Cobalt after seeing his predecessor ‘pushed out of the job for doing just that.’”
Stunned, Mr. Kelley instantly realized that he was the predecessor Mr. Oakley alluded to in the report, which attributed GM’s inaction to a culture of complacency, incompetence, and neglect.
For years Mr. Kelley had worried GM was putting the lives of its customers at risk by sweeping safety issues, many involving serious defects, under the rug. Safety audits he was involved in found an average of two to three “significant safety defects” every month. Mr. Kelley used all the proper channels and chains of command, even threatening to take the matter to federal regulators at the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), but no significant changes were made.
Tragically, Mr. Kelley’s whistleblower lawsuit against GM was dismissed on procedural grounds. A GM lawyer argued Mr. Kelley, still a GM employee at the time, didn’t have legal grounds to file a whistleblower lawsuit. Also, Mr. Kelley’s is lawyer had failed to appear for an April 2004 hearing because she had gotten sick and subsequently died, and his case was quickly closed.
According to Bloomberg, Mr. Kelley “sank into depression. His dark brown hair turned snow-white in the span of a year.” An astonished neighbor saw Mr. Kelley “age drastically” and said the experience “shook him to the core.”
Mr. Kelley “couldn’t sleep at night, waking in cold sweats and experiencing chest pains and panic attacks,” Bloomberg reported, citing friends and records.
On top of those troubles, Mr. Kelley was moved to a position within GM where he had no real job responsibilities, let alone any oversight of quality in GM’s products.
Mr. Kelley’s experience as a whistleblower is a common one and demonstrates the need for tough protections that prohibit companies from retaliating against employees who call out wrongdoing, especially when that wrongdoing is deeply embedded in the culture of a giant corporation like GM.
Had the courts heard Mr. Kelley’s claims, the outcome could have had a deep impact on the way GM operated in the face of so many defective vehicles, and many people who lost their lives in GM cars that suddenly stalled might be alive today.