Cover Story

Man in motions

"Man in motions" Continued...

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

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.

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