General Motors knew in 2004, a decade before it issued a recall, that its Chevrolet Cobalt had an ignition switch that could inadvertently shut off the engine while driving. This was learned in depositions taken in a civil lawsuit against GM. The stall also would cut off the driver’s power steering and brakes, as well as safety systems such as airbags and anti-lock brakes. At least one GM engineer had the problem while testing the new car, which went on sale in 2004 as a 2005 model, according to documents obtained by USA TODAY. The lawsuit arose out of a crash that killed a pediatric nurse, Brooke Melton. Ms. Melton died in 2010 on her 29th birthday, in the Cobalt she bought new in 2005.
GM created a snap-on key cover to try to help with the ignition issue. The company advised dealers in a 2005 technical service bulletin (TSB) to install the part if owners complained. GM failed to recall the cars for a mandatory fix until last month. GM settled the lawsuit filed by Ms. Melton’s estate. The terms are confidential and GM refused to comment on the settlement, saying a dealer lawsuit is still pending. Ms. Melton had taken her car into the dealer for ignition switch problems and just picked it up the day before her fatal crash. She bought her 2005 Cobalt new in August of 2005. She never received notice of the TSB and never got the part referred to above.
In the recall announced on Feb. 13, GM said it knows of at least six deaths in five Cobalt crashes in which airbags failed to deploy as a result of switch failure. The company said the switch mechanisms did not meet its specifications and too easily could pop out of the “run” position — because of jarring or a heavy key chain — into “accessory” or “off,” deactivating the airbags.
GM will replace the switch in 778,619 of its 2005-2007 Chevrolet Cobalts and mechanically similar 2007 Pontiac G5 compact cars in the U.S., Canada and Mexico. The carmaker said it knows of a total of 22 related crashes, but GM spokesman Adam Adler said the company would have no further details or comment beyond the original recall announcement.
Even though GM acknowledged the problem in the 2005 technical service bulletin — a type of routine notice from automakers to dealers about possible problems and fixes — the bulletin did not tell dealers to put the new key cover on the keys of new Cobalts before they were sold. The bulletin also did not tell dealers to alert buyers of the possibility that the key might move out of place and the engine might stall. Gary Altman, program engineering manager for Cobalt during its development, testified in a deposition last June. He admitted that “the modification to the key listed in the bulletins was an ‘improvement,’ it was not a fix to the issue.” But he testified that he “thought that the insert should have been put into the cars, yes.”
Ms. Melton was driving on a rainy night in Paulding County, Ga., – about 30 miles from Atlanta – wearing her safety belt and traveling at 58 mph on a two-lane state road. She was on her way to her boyfriend’s house. When the ignition failed Ms. Melton lost control of her car, it skidded and was hit on the passenger side by another car. The car’s black box recorded the last 3 seconds before the crash.
Interestingly, it doesn’t appear that Ms. Melton is among the six fatalities cited in GM’s belated recall. The circumstances of her crash were different from those GM described, which all were front-impact accidents. One of the investigating officers said Ms. Melton was “traveling too fast for the roadway conditions.” Occupants in the car that hit her vehicle were injured and they sued Ms. Melton’s estate. Her parents contacted Lance Cooper to represent them. Lance had a “black box dump” done, and that’s when it was discovered that the ignition key had come out of the “run” position and shut off the engine at the time of the crash.
Lance, who is the founding partner of The Cooper firm, located in Marietta, Ga., represents the Melton estate in this most important case. Obviously, the case has already attracted a great deal of national interest.
Source: USA Today
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