By Nick Bunkley, Crain News Service
DETROIT (March 18, 2015) — Plaintiffs from around the country who are suing General Motors Co. over faulty ignition switches have gained access to “millions” of previously confidential documents produced by the auto maker and plan to depose numerous current and former top executives this year, two lawyers involved in a key case said March 16.
Their comments suggest that GM's confidential settlement last week with the parents of a Georgia woman who died in 2010 could mark the beginning of more disclosures about GM's handling of the ignition defect, rather than just closing a chapter in the case.
Lawyers Lance Cooper of Georgia and Jere Beasley of Alabama contend the documents, which include internal communication between GM officials and the auto maker's attorneys, contradict the conclusions reached by GM's internal investigation.
That investigation, conducted by former federal prosecutor Anton Valukas, said incompetence and neglect — not an intentional effort to conceal the problem — allowed defective switches to remain on the road for more than a decade after employees learned of problems with them.
“The documents clearly show they knew it was a safety issue but chose to ignore it,” Mr. Cooper said on a conference call with reporters. “It wasn't incompetence. It was a cover-up.”
A GM spokesman declined to comment.
GM turned over the documents as part of a second lawsuit filed by Ken and Beth Melton, whose daughter Brooke died when her Chevrolet Cobalt crashed in March 2010. The Meltons' first case against GM, settled for $5 million in 2013, forced GM to finally acknowledge the defect publicly and recall millions of vehicles.
The couple dropped their second case — which accused GM of fraud in the first settlement — last week after accepting a payout from the compensation fund GM established for victims of crashes linked to the ignition defect. The Meltons reached a separate deal with John Thornton Chevrolet in Lithia Springs, Ga., the dealership where Brooke Melton had taken her Cobalt days before her death, complaining that its engine had shut off. Terms of the deals are confidential.
Mr. Cooper said the Meltons were “emotionally exhausted” and felt they had accomplished their goals: getting GM to acknowledge that their daughter's death was caused by a defective switch and unlocking the trove of documents that other cases against GM can now use.