Cover Story
DOGGED DETERMINATION: Lance Cooper.
Robin Rayne Nelson/Genesis
DOGGED DETERMINATION: Lance Cooper.

Man in motions

Law | A lone Georgia attorney helps spur GM’s recall of 2.6 million cars, but a higher law drives his passions inside and outside the courtroom

Issue: "Day of reckoning," June 14, 2014

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.

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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.

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