We were all highly pleased that I can now write that the Melton case has been settled. Ken and Beth Melton, whose daughter Brooke died because of a defective General Motors ignition switch, have agreed to a confidential settlement. This came after the Meltons exposed a more than 10-year cover-up on the part of the automaker. They were motivated to make their daughter’s death a catalyst to change the way General Motors operates and also to protect thousands of folks who were driving defective GM cars with no idea of how dangerous those cars were.
Their lawsuits brought about all that the Meltons wanted to accomplish from their efforts. Now hundreds of other lawsuits are consolidated in a New York federal court awaiting further action. There are also lawsuits pending in a number of state courts. Importantly, millions of cars with defective ignition switches have been recalled. Lance Cooper and his firm in Marietta, Ga., along with our firm, represented the Meltons.
The settlement came after numerous discussions with GM victim compensation plan administrator Ken Feinberg. The settlement was actually reached during the week of Feb. 9, but couldn’t be announced until a separate settlement was reached with the local dealer. This settlement – and all that led up to it – vindicates Brooke and it gives real and lasting meaning to her memory. Lance Cooper, whose work on the initial lawsuit uncovered the defective GM ignition switch, had this to say:
This is the right thing to do for Ken and Beth for a number of reasons. Ultimately, the litigation served its purpose and they accomplished what they set out to do. They are grieving parents who simply wanted the truth and for no one else to suffer a similar loss.
The fact that Ken and Beth Melton would be willing to take on a corporate giant and then go on to be directly responsible for alerting both the government and the public to a massive cover-up by General Motors is one of the most courageous things that I’ve experienced in my career as a lawyer. I will try to explain why in more detail below. The Meltons truly are American heroes. I am extremely proud of them and am honored to have been asked to help represent them in a most worthy cause.
The Meltons initially filed a lawsuit against GM after their daughter Brooke died in a March 2010 crash when the ignition switch of her 2005 Cobalt slipped into the accessory position as she was driving. Her car skidded into another vehicle and she was killed. The investigation revealed the vehicle was equipped with a faulty ignition switch that allowed the key to turn out of the “run” to the “accessory” or “off” position. This cut power steering, anti-lock braking, lights, and disabled the air bags that drivers and passengers need to protect them in a crash.
Believing GM had told the truth during discovery for the initial lawsuit, the Meltons agreed to settle with the automaker in September 2013 for $5 million. In February 2014, however, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) and GM began announcing recalls for a number of vehicles – including the Cobalt – related to a defective ignition switch. This was a direct result of what had been discovered in the first Melton lawsuit. The Meltons, realizing that GM was aware of the defect for years before the recalls, requested that NHTSA open a Timeliness Query. The Melton case touched off a national controversy and resulted in a full-blown Congressional inquiry into GM’s handling of the problem. NHTSA’s lackluster response to the safety defect was brought to light during the congressional hearings.
In April 2014, after the Meltons learned that GM had lied under oath in their case, our two firms joined forces and asked GM to rescind the original settlement, offering to return the $5 million. Subsequently, a second lawsuit was filed, charging GM with both putting a known defective vehicle on the highway and with fraud in the handling of the original lawsuit and settlement. The new lawsuit was filed in the State Court of Cobb County, Ga.
The Meltons took GM at its word when they initially agreed to settle the case, but they later realized that GM had not been telling the truth. One of the most important issues for the Meltons was accountability. They were dealing with a company that concealed for years a dangerous defect key persons at GM knew about and covered up. Primarily, Ken and Beth Melton wanted to hold GM accountable, and that was exactly what refiling the second lawsuit accomplished.
The Melton lawsuit caused the GM ignition switch litigation to move forward, not just in the Melton case, but also in the multidistrict litigation (MDL) as well. In September 2014, U.S. District Judge Jesse M. Furman, who is overseeing the MDL, ruled against GM’s efforts to halt discovery efforts in the Melton case, noting that discovery in the Melton case would also help the MDL process and the judge ordered discovery to proceed immediately. The first MDL case is scheduled for trial in January 2016. Lance Cooper should be the lead attorney for the MDL team in that trial. Without any doubt, Lance is the most knowledgeable lawyer on anything related to the defective ignition switch and deserves to be the lead attorney in that case. I am sure that the leadership in the MDL recognizes how valuable it would be to the MDL and to all of GM’s victims to have Lance in that role.
It’s important to note that the Meltons brought GM’s conduct to the attention of the public and Congress. It also became evident that the government regulator, NHTSA, was not doing its job. As a result of the case and Lance Cooper’s Timeliness Query to NHTSA, GM says it has changed the way it does business. Significantly, for the first time, GM has given NHTSA unprecedented access. Because of the Meltons’ diligent pursuit of justice, NHTSA also fined GM $35 million and made the automaker admit publicly that it had violated the Safety Act. Those are significant accomplishments that would never have happened had not the Meltons sought truth and justice from GM.
As we all know, GM also established a victim compensation fund to evaluate claims to determine eligibility and compensation amounts for drivers, passengers and pedestrians killed or injured by one of the defective GM vehicles. Neither would this fund have been created but for the Melton lawsuit. GM has paid claims to a good number of people who would never have known about the defective ignition switch had not the Meltons filed suit and discovered the defect.
But for the Meltons’ efforts, none of these injured drivers and passengers would ever have received any compensation, much less fair and appropriate compensation from GM. The courageous act of rescinding a settlement by the Meltons, and their filing a new and different lawsuit, has helped hundreds of people receive compensation. Because of what Ken & Beth Melton have done, GM was exposed and the public has benefited. They have brought about significant change in both government regulation and in how GM operates.
Ken and Beth Melton are national heroes and they now know that Brooke’s tragic death will have meaning for millions of persons who will benefit because of what they have done. Brooke’s death, although a tragic loss for her parents, played a major role in how NHTSA operates and how a huge automaker deals with safety issues. That’s the lasting legacy of Brooke Melton. Ken and Beth Melton have done their work and now can get on with their lives. May God bless them!
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