Despite an attempt by General Motors (GM) to move the wrongful death lawsuit filed by the Melton family to the federal court system, U.S. District Judge Thomas Thrash, Jr., ruled that the case should be handled in a Georgia state court.
“It has to be a bad day for General Motors,” said Jere Beasley, founding shareholder of Beasley Allen and one of the lawyers on Melton’s legal team. Beasley believes that by trying to move the Melton lawsuit to federal court, the automaker was attempting to avoid the hastened processes of local court, including questioning of company executives and employees under oath. Beasley also said that a jury, after hearing the damning evidence against GM, including its cover-up of a known safety hazard, will punish GM by awarding punitive damages.
Brooke Melton, a 29-year-old nurse, was killed in a car crash near Atlanta in 2010 while driving her 2005 Chevrolet Cobalt. The ignition switch in her car failed and caused her death. “We will prove that the switch caused the Cobalt to lose power and crash,” Beasley said.
Brooke’s parents sued GM after their daughter’s crash was linked to the defective ignition switch. They settled with GM last year for $5 million, but then in February the automaker finally admitted the defect it had known about for 11 years and issued a massive recall. The Meltons asked that their settlement be rescinded and they refiled the lawsuit against GM.
GM initially recalled about 780,000 2005-07 Chevrolet Cobalt and Pontiac G5 vehicles on Feb. 13. Twelve days later, it expanded the recall to include an additional 590,000 model-year 2003-07 Saturn Ion, Chevy HHR, Pontiac Solstice, and Saturn Sky vehicles. That initial recall now encompasses 2.6 million vehicles, and GM admits to 13 deaths related to the defect. GM is now the subject of a federal investigation, facing allegations of a cover-up, and was issued a $35 million civil fine from federal regulators regarding the company’s massive delays in reporting safety problems.
Beth’s parents, Ken and Beth Melton, wanted to keep the case in Cobb County, Ga., where it belonged. Judge Thrash rejected GM’s claim that the Meltons had fraudulently joined the dealer, and sent the case back to state court.
Now that the case will remain in state court, Beasley said that he and Lance Cooper, the Georgia attorney from Melton’s legal team who uncovered the defective ignition switch problems, will ask the judge to allow depositions from key players at GM in the ignition switch crisis and to order critically important documents to be produced.
Beasley listed as probable persons to be deposed GM CEO Mary Barra, Corporate Counsel Michael Milliken, and the design release engineer on the flawed ignition switch, Ray DeGiorgio. Also on the list for depositions are DeGiorgio’s supervisors, as well as all 15 employees related to the ignition switch who were fired by the automaker.
“The key to the overall General Motors litigation picture now is taking depositions under oath of key people,” Beasley said, “and the Melton case in Cobb County, Ga., is said to be the ‘linchpin’ in this important litigation.”
The family says they are willing to return the $5 million they received last year from GM. “We can prove that GM fraudulently concealed important evidence from Lance and the Meltons, and there won’t be any doubt about that,” Beasley says.
In June, GM recalled an additional 3.4 million midsize and large cars for the same ignition switch defect. In July, GM recalled 17 older model (1997-2005) vehicles. GM attributes seven crashes, three deaths and eight injuries to this latest group of recalled vehicles, which it says allows “inadvertent ignition key rotation.” So far, GM has recalled 17.1 million cars this year because of the ignition switch defect.
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