General Motors and its lawyers worked together to cover up the automaker’s deadly ignition switch defect and avoid a recall, multidistrict litigations (MDL) plaintiffs asserted in a motion to compel documents filed last week in a New York federal court.
The plaintiffs argue that starting in 2010, Atlanta-based international corporate law firm King & Spalding warned GM repeatedly about the legal trouble that would befall GM if knowledge of its ignition switch defect became known.
To remedy this, the law firm encouraged the new post-bankruptcy GM to quietly settle with plaintiffs harmed by the ignition switch defect in Chevrolet Cobalts, the plaintiffs allege, saying that the automaker knew as early as 2004 that the ignition switches it was installing in 2005 Cobalts could easily malfunction.
The plaintiffs allege that King & Spalding advised GM to quickly settle those cases to keep the true scope of the problem under wraps.
In a twist of fate, it was a deadly crash involving a 2005 Chevy Cobalt that eventually exposed the ignition switch defect. Rather than settling with the parents of Brooke Melton, a Georgia woman who was killed on her 29th birthday when the ignition switch in her 2005 Cobalt malfunctioned, causing her to lose control of the vehicle, GM chose to fight the case because police reports erroneously attributed the crash to Ms. Melton driving too fast in rainy weather.
It wasn’t until Lance Cooper, the Meltons’ attorney, produced evidence the ignition switch in Brooke’s Cobalt malfunctioned that GM motioned to settle. An analysis of the vehicle’s electronic data recorder found that the ignition had slipped into “accessory” position at 58 mph, cutting off the engine, power steering, anti-lock brakes, and airbag protection.
The Melton case also found evidence that GM secretly made modifications to the detent plunger and spring inside the ignition column, proving GM knew about the defect but failed to notify federal regulators and its customers of the problem.
By the time GM decided to settle the case in 2013, however, it was too late, and word got out that the faulty switches had been installed in millions of GM-made vehicles.
GM’s ignition switch has been linked to 111 deaths and hundreds of injuries to date, more than a dozen of which were catastrophic for the victims.
The multidistrict litigation plaintiffs now want GM to turn over documents allegedly showing how the company worked with its lawyers to cover up its ignition problem.
“Lawyers have a duty to not participate in crimes,” a lawyer for the plaintiffs said in a statement. “By allowing evidence of a defect that will kill and injure to be covered up and those cases confidentially settled both GM and the attorneys advising them sentenced many of my clients to die.”
Plaintiffs’ attorneys say that the evidence they seek falls under a crime-fraud exception to attorney-client privilege.
“The success of GM’s lawyers’ advice and actions and the skill by which this law firm accomplished its task, for which it was paid handsomely, can be felt in the graveyards across this country,” a lawyer for the plaintiffs said.