ATLANTA—Brooke Melton’s 29th birthday began with a singing voicemail message from her father, a birthday email from her mother, and excitement over a birthday dinner with her new boyfriend. After her shift as a pediatric nurse, Brooke climbed into her 2005 Chevy Cobalt, fastened her seatbelt, and headed down a misty, two-lane highway just north of Atlanta. She never made it to dinner.
Instead, Brooke’s day ended with her car suddenly losing power, veering across the highway into an oncoming vehicle, and turning the date of her birth into the date of her death.
Three years would pass before Brooke’s parents, Ken and Beth Melton, learned why their daughter’s car crashed on a Georgia night in March 2010. But from the moment she died, Ken Melton was convinced the accident wasn’t Brooke’s fault: She had taken her car to a dealership for service after she lost power less than a week before her crash. As he leaned over her cold body at a local hospital, Ken Melton kissed Brooke goodbye, told her he loved her, and promised he would find out what happened.
The search eventually led to a one-attorney legal firm in Marietta, Ga., where lawyer Lance Cooper oversees a staff of two paralegals and three assistants. Though the firm is small, its influence is huge: Cooper’s investigation into Brooke Melton’s death spurred the General Motors (GM) recall of some 2.6 million vehicles earlier this year.
The recall began in February, with GM admitting a faulty ignition switch in some vehicles could cause the engine to turn off while driving, cutting power to vital systems like antilock brakes, power steering, and airbags. The company acknowledged at least 13 deaths tied to accidents involving the defect—a mechanical problem Cooper’s firm had uncovered.
GM also admitted at least some company employees knew about the potential hazard more than a decade ago, even before GM began selling Chevy Cobalts—a revelation Cooper discovered while digging through nearly 32,000 pages of documents with one paralegal in his Georgia office.
On May 16, the federal government announced GM had agreed to pay a $35 million fine for failing to report the ignition switch defect in a timely manner. It’s the maximum fine allowed by U.S. law, and the largest ever levied in a recall investigation.
‘If someone had not swept this under the rug, my daughter would still be alive.’—Ken Melton
The recall sparked a series of scorching congressional hearings, a reported investigation by the Department of Justice, and continuing questions about the role of the federal agency tasked with regulating auto safety. Sean Kane, a longtime analyst with The Safety Institute, underscored the importance of Cooper’s role: “There’s a direct line between what he did and the GM recall.”
On a desk in the home Cooper shares with his family outside Atlanta, a three-inch-thick binder holds papers for just one motion in the GM case. But Cooper’s study is filled with other tomes as well: Russell Kirk’s The Conservative Mind, C.H. Spurgeon’s devotional classic Morning and Evening, and Steve Lawson’s profiles of A Long Line of Godly Men. A hand-painted motto on the wall in the nearby kitchen reads: “Soli Deo Gloria”—the Latin phrase for “Glory to God Alone.”
News outlets from ABC to Al Jazeera have reported parts of the remarkable story of how Cooper and his team of a paralegal, a mechanic, and an engineer uncovered a massive safety scandal at one of the biggest companies in the country. In an interview with WORLD, Cooper describes how his road to legal notoriety—and his continued pursuit of GM—also includes a crisis pregnancy, a blind date, a local church, and a hankering to uncover the truth.
ON A RECENT SUNDAY MORNING, Cooper and his wife, Sonja, sat on the third row of their local church in Powder Springs, Ga., as a pastor in the high pulpit at Midway Presbyterian Church (PCA) acknowledged God as the “omniscient and perfect judge.”
It’s a fitting meditation for an attorney who has spent more than two decades in man-made courtrooms. Cooper, 51, graduated from law school at Emory University in 1989, and has specialized in personal injury, wrongful death, and product liability cases, including automobile defects. He started his own practice—The Cooper Firm—in 2006. (Since the GM case, Cooper has added an associate.)
But when Cooper begins his story, he starts with a crisis pregnancy in Berkeley, Calif., in 1962. That’s when an unmarried college couple with good grades and full social circles learned they were expecting an unplanned child. “Thankfully, they decided to keep me,” says Cooper.
Cooper’s parents married, and he professed faith in Christ during a Christian camp in high school. His commitment waned during his college years, but he says it grew when he met Sonja—a committed Christian—on a blind date in 1982: “Her influence on me was dramatic.”
The two married in 1987 and now have five children, ages 24 to 17. Cooper’s own background drew the couple into pro-life work, including service with Cobb Pregnancy Services, a local pregnancy care center where Sonja counsels women. She often uses her husband’s story to encourage abortion-minded women to keep their unborn children: “I tell them, ‘You don’t know what that baby will become.’”
Cooper’s role in the massive GM recall deepens that conviction. “Here’s an unplanned pregnancy that resulted in someone very valuable to people he will never meet and to society as a whole,” says Sonja. “I think that’s a beautiful aspect of this story.”
BY THE TIME COOPER met the Meltons in 2011, the bereaved parents’ suffering still ran deep. Ken had spent a year poring over internet postings, trying to find if other Cobalt drivers had experienced power loss like Brooke had described a few days before her fatal accident.
During that incident, Brooke told her father the engine had turned off, and she struggled to steer the car to the side of the road. She took the Cobalt to a local dealership on a Friday, and retrieved the car on a Tuesday, believing it was fixed. She died the next day. Police said she had hydroplaned on the slick road.
Nearly a year later, when the Meltons thought the driver Brooke struck might sue her estate, an insurance agent suggested they contact Cooper. In the first meetings, Ken told the attorney he suspected something was wrong with the car.
Cooper sent the Cobalt’s black box to a mechanic, thinking it might reveal a power steering problem, but the results surprised him: The data indicated an ignition switch failure. “I began to think, ‘What happened to her?’” says Cooper.
The mechanic suggested sending the ignition switch to Mark Hood, an engineer in Pensacola, Fla., who investigates mechanical failures. Hood tested the part, but couldn’t determine why it might have failed. When he bought a replacement part at a local GM dealership, he was surprised: A tiny plunger in the new switch was longer than the same part in Brooke’s car. But both ignition switches had the same identification number.
That meant GM had begun quietly changing the switches on newer models without informing owners of older models—owners like Brooke Melton. The change was significant: The longer plunger in the new switch made it less likely to turn to the off position while the car was still running. It was safer.
Hood documented his findings by searching salvage yards across the Pensacola area for ignition switches from Chevy Cobalts. After acquiring at least 10 switches from various years, Hood X-rayed, disassembled, and compared them. His research confirmed his discovery: GM had made a safer part without telling drivers of older cars.
Hood says he’d never encountered anything like it in 15 years of investigations. Cooper hardly could believe it. “It was astonishing,” he says. According to Cooper, the weaker switch in Brooke’s car likely failed and turned off the engine, causing her to lose antilock brakes and power steering, making it too difficult to correct quickly when the car began to skid.
(It’s unclear why many cars never experience the problem, but engineers say the car’s design could allow a driver’s knee to hit a low-hanging key chain, and possibly move the switch. A heavy key chain could cause the same problem. GM now says the cars are safe if drivers don’t use key chains.)
In other accidents involving GM cars, drivers experienced crashes unrelated to the ignition switch. But when the car hit an object or another car, the faulty switch turned off, cutting power to airbags that could have saved drivers if the bags had deployed.
Meanwhile, Cooper made another major discovery. After prevailing in a lengthy court battle against GM’s legal team to obtain thousands of company documents, Cooper learned some engineers knew about the ignition switch problem as early as 2004—the year before GM began selling Cobalts. At least one engineer experienced the problem while test-driving the car before its release.
Instead of solving the problem or holding back the car, GM suggested dealers give owners a snap-on key cover to help reduce weight on the key and wear on the ignition switch—but only if drivers complained. GM released the Cobalt with the faulty switch in 2005, but didn’t offer the partial fix of a key cover unless drivers later complained about a problem.
Cooper hammered those discoveries in depositions with GM engineers. First, he confronted engineer Ray DeGiorgio about the changed ignition switch. DeGiorgio denied authorizing any changes—a claim that would come back to haunt him.
Cooper also confronted Gary Altman, the chief engineer for the 2005 Chevy Cobalt. As he pressed Altman about whether GM had put profits over safety, and had released the car despite knowing about the problems, Altman relented. Cooper asked if GM “made a business decision not to fix this problem,” and then sold the vehicle to Brooke Melton five months later. Altman glanced at the GM lawyer, but replied: “That’s what happened, yes.”
The Meltons settled their case against GM in September 2013, but the revelations about the GM controversy didn’t stay private. By February 2014, GM recalled 619,122 vehicles, citing a problem with the ignition switch. (The recall repairs now include a replacement ignition switch and new keys.)
But despite the massive recall, Cooper noticed a big problem: GM hadn’t recalled all the vehicles with the switch. Cooper sent a letter to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), informing the federal agency that GM should widen the recall to other makes and models, and revealing the company knew about the problem as early as 2004.
After USA Today published Cooper’s letter, GM eventually recalled 2.6 million vehicles with the faulty switch, and acknowledged at least 13 deaths related to the problem. The company also revealed some employees knew about the issue as early as 2001, as they tested the ignition switch in other cars. CEO Mary Barra said she didn’t learn about the problem until January of this year, and she apologized for the deaths linked to the switches.
Senate committee members weren’t appeased. In a scorching hearing with Barra, Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., accused GM of a “culture of cover-up,” and revealed another bombshell: Additional documents subpoenaed by Congress indicated GM engineer Ray DeGiorgio had approved a change to the faulty ignition switch in 2006, contrary to his testimony during Cooper’s deposition. “He lied,” said McCaskill. (GM has placed DeGiorgio and Altman on paid leave during an internal investigation.)
The revelation about DeGiorgio led Cooper to ask a judge on May 12 to reopen the wrongful death lawsuit in Brooke Melton’s case, saying GM concealed evidence during the settlement. GM denied wrongdoing in Melton’s settlement, and the judge hasn’t set a court date. (GM didn’t respond to WORLD’s requests for a comment for this story.)
Meanwhile, questions remain about the NHTSA’s involvement in the GM debacle. Documents show the federal agency learned of potential ignition switch problems through multiple complaints as early as 2007, but didn’t pursue a formal investigation. An NHTSA spokesman told WORLD the agency didn’t have enough information from GM at the time. Sean Kane of The Safety Institute says it’s a puzzling claim: “I’ve seen recalls on far less data.”
GM OFFICIALS HAVEN'T RELEASED a list of the names of the 13 people they think died in crashes connected to the switch. Some attorneys and families believe the number is much higher. Dozens of lawsuits are underway, and hundreds of families believe they may have been affected by the defect.
Indeed, Brooke Melton isn’t included among the 13 deaths GM acknowledges, since the company only counts cases when airbags didn’t deploy in front-end crashes. The oncoming car in Brooke’s accident struck her vehicle on the side.
Brooke’s parents grapple with anger and disbelief over GM’s admission of making a business decision not to fix cars. “I have to believe if you put those 13 people in the room with those GM employees before they died—surely they wouldn’t have said they were expendable,” says Beth Melton. Ken Melton says it’s hard to bear the thought: “If someone had not swept this under the rug, my daughter would still be alive.”
Four years after Brooke’s death, the Meltons struggle daily with her loss. Brooke was close to her parents, visiting at least twice a week. “Everywhere you go, she’s there, but she’s missing,” says her mother. Ken Melton constantly grieves the daughter who dreamed of marrying and having children of her own. “She wasn’t just my daughter. She was my friend,” he says. “I really miss her company.”
The Meltons say they hope the recall will save lives, and they’re thankful for Cooper’s “dogged determination” to uncover the truth about their daughter’s death.
Cooper says pursuing the GM case highlights the importance of the courts in exposing injustice and corruption. He’s enjoyed the challenge but says for all the notoriety of the case: “When we wake up tomorrow morning, Brooke Melton still won’t be here.”