MONTGOMERY, ALA. (August 28, 2014) – When Judge Kathryn Tanksley denied General Motors’ motion to dismiss the wrongful death and fraud lawsuit filed against GM by the Melton family in Georgia state court, lawyers for the Meltons were given the green light to proceed with discovery. GM was ordered by the court to produce all the documents related to the ignition switch defect by late September. This badly needed discovery will benefit any person bringing a claim against GM based on its faulty ignition switch. This includes those cases involving personal injury and death as well as economic losses being addressed by multidistrict litigation (MDL). It also may influence how claims submitted to GM’s victim compensation fund are ultimately decided.
GM has released a substantial, but limited, amount of discovery to government officials, including the House Energy & Commerce Committee, a Senate Commerce subcommittee, and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA). While those disclosures were made available to those entities, they have not been released to the public. Neither do lawyers representing victims currently have access to the documents. Lawyers should have ready access to the documents and witness statements compiled by Anton Valukas, the man GM hired to conduct an internal investigation of the ignition switch problem. Unfortunately, GM did not produce all of the key documents, even to Congress. It now is clear that GM will not produce any documents in Melton without a fight. GM wants to use the slow process in the MDL, rather than have to be on our fast track in Melton.
The Melton lawsuit, which has been described by the media as the “linchpin” of the GM litigation, involves allegations GM committed fraud when it negotiated a settlement agreement with the Melton family late last year. Ken and Beth Melton sued GM after the death of their daughter, 29-year-old Brooke Melton, in a 2010 crash of her Chevy Cobalt linked to the ignition switch defect. After learning that GM knew about the defective ignition switch and covered up the defect for more than 10 years, the Meltons asked that their settlement agreement be rescinded and refiled a wrongful death and fraud lawsuit against the automaker.
“Since we are pursuing the Melton claim in a Georgia state court we were expecting to have discovery responses by Sept. 26, documents that will make the cases that go the court route much easier to prove,” said Jere Beasley, Principal & Founder of Beasley Allen, whose firm is prosecuting the Melton case in conjunction with The Cooper Firm based in Marietta, Ga. “The Melton case is referred to by the media as the ‘linchpin’ to the overall GM litigation, and for good reason,” Beasley says. “The documents and deposition testimony in Melton will benefit the GM MDL as well as the public. We will be able to get information in the Melton case quickly, documents that would take the MDL months to get. While we hoped that GM would comply with Judge Tanksley’s mandate, we really expected the automaker to refuse production in Melton. We anticipated a battle with GM over the documents and, based on communications with GM’s lawyer, that battle is now on. We intend to fight very hard and will file the appropriate motions in Melton at the proper time to require GM to comply with the court’s orders. We have no intention of backing down in the Melton case, which is still the key to success in the GM litigation; something that GM knows all too well.”
U.S. District Judge Jesse Furman is overseeing the MDL surrounding the GM ignition switch recall in United States District Court, District of New York. The MDL currently contains at least 109 lawsuits, including 90 economic loss suits along with personal injury cases. Lance Cooper, head of The Cooper Firm, has been appointed to the executive committee for the MDL. In the economic-loss lawsuits, owners of GM vehicles seek damages from the automaker, alleging the ignition switch defect that the company kept secret for years contributed to a loss in the value of their vehicles.
GM has admitted the ignition switch defect is the cause of deaths, but the automaker refused to tell the truth about the death totals that it knew about and withheld from the NHTSA. Some experts say more than 300 deaths were caused by the defective switches. Investigations have revealed GM knew about the ignition switch defect for 11 years before disclosing it to safety regulators and the public. Hundreds of people have been killed and many more seriously injured. The victims never knew of the link between their defective GM vehicle and their crashes.
The ignition switch in these vehicles may move from the “run” position to the “off” or “accessory” position, disabling power steering and brakes during operation, also possibly deactivating the airbags. 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. 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.” The total number of all safety-related recalls now exceeds 29 million.