It’s abundantly clear that over the years the federal government has done a very poor job of regulating the automobile industry. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) has dropped the ball on too many occasions. Based on our litigation experience, lawyers in our firm know that NHTSA has failed to discover safety issues involving a number of automakers. Two classic examples were when the agency failed to discover decade-long cover-ups of known and most serious safety defects by Toyota and General Motors. Those safety problems killed and injured hundreds of innocent victims.
The automobile industry is fully aware that NHTSA has been underfunded and inadequately staffed for years, and, as a result, not able to do its job as regulator very well. The industry had tremendous influence over Congress. That influence has assured that Congress has not done its job when it comes to giving NHTSA the tools it needs to adequately regulate the automakers. That has made regulation sort of like the tail wagging the dog.
Brooke Melton was killed in 2010, when her Chevy Cobalt crashed due to the defective General Motors ignition switch in her vehicle. The defect allowed the key to move from the “run” position to the “off” position, cutting power and disabling the vehicle’s power steering, power brakes and airbags. It’s rather ironic that Brooke’s parents, Ken and Beth Melton, were able to do that which NHTSA had failed to do by finding the defect in Brooke’s car. The agency was unaware of this fatal defect until it was brought to light following Brooke Melton’s tragedy, through the efforts of the Meltons. The Meltons worked through their grief to make more progress in vehicle safety than the regulator had over a much longer period of time and are continuing to work to make sure other families do not experience a similar tragedy.
In partnership with The Safety Institute (TSI), the Meltons are funding a Vehicle Safety Watch List in their daughter’s memory. Ken Melton had this to say in a TSI news release:
Brooke would still be alive if GM had acknowledged the ignition defect and fixed it. Brooke would be alive if the regulators had followed up on their own investigations which revealed the problem. It ’s clear to us that the accountability systems we have in place don’t work as well as they should. The Watch List provides another tool, another way to look at defect trends. So, we are investing in a process that can help uncover emerging problems before they take more lives and turn into a full-blown crisis and cover-up.
The watch list will definitely help to save lives. Beth Melton added the following comments in an interview with NBC: “What we really hope is for other families to be able to use this information and prevent accidents. We think it can save lives.”
The Meltons suffered greatly because of Brooke’s death. But they are determined to help other families avoid what they went through because of GM’s conduct and the automaker’s cover-up of a known about defect for 10 years. Through the litigation, it became known that GM knew about the ignition switch defect, and withheld that knowledge from the NHTSA and the public for a full decade. In the period of time, hundreds of innocent victims were killed because of GM’s wrongdoing and intentional cover-up. GM has now admitted that this defect killed — by its own count — 124 innocent people. The automaker recalled about 3 million cars with exactly the very same defect that the Meltons had discovered and made public.
The Meltons’ lawsuit against GM not only exposed GM’s ignition switch cover-up, but also brought to light the failure of NHTSA to effectively monitor automobile defect complaints, or hold automakers fully accountable for their wrongful acts and omissions. The TSI watch list will address shortcomings in the current regulatory system. TSI works to identify potential motor vehicle safety defects that it believes should be more fully investigated, and gathers information from a variety of sources, including publicly available data from NHTSA complaints, manufacturer reported Early Warning Reports on deaths and injuries, and the Fatality Analysis Reporting System (FARS).
The courage and dedication of Ken and Beth Melton cannot be overemphasized. Determined to find out what really happened to their daughter and what caused her to lose control of her car, they enlisted the help of Lance Cooper, an experienced products liability lawyer from Marietta, Ga. Lance discovered the defective ignition and exposed GM’s cover-up. Without the efforts of the Melton’s and Lance Cooper, there would have been no massive recalls, no civil or criminal fines and no multidistrict litigation. Sadly, the fines that GM was assessed — regardless of the amount — will be no real consolation to the hundreds of families who were devastated by GM’s conduct. There is no question some persons from GM should go to jail. I will have more to say about that in this issue. We were honored to have been asked by Lance Cooper to assist his firm in the Melton litigation.
By supporting the Vehicle Watch List, Ken and Beth Melton will continue to make a difference for families throughout the country. The efforts of the Meltons — without a doubt — will help to save lives. We can only hope that by shining a spotlight on the despicable conduct of the automobile industry, and the woefully inadequate safety monitoring by NHTSA that has been in place, the Meltons will also help to turn the tide of public opinion at the grassroots. The American people — once they are fully informed — will no longer stand for this sort of “business as usual” in the automobile industry and at NHTSA. The public demands to be informed, and fortunately, the automotive industry and the NHTSA are finally receiving the message.
Sources: NBC News, The Safety Institute, and The Associated Press
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