Cover Story

Man in motions

"Man in motions" Continued...

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

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.

Sen. Claire McCaskill (above) questions GM CEO Mary Barra (below) during the Senate hearing.
Associated Press/Photo by Pablo Martinez Monsivais
Sen. Claire McCaskill (above) questions GM CEO Mary Barra (below) during the Senate hearing.
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.)

Kristoffer Tripplaar/Sipa USA/AP
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.

STILL STRUGGLING: Ken and Beth Melton with a photo of Brooke.
Robin Rayne Nelson/Genesis
STILL STRUGGLING: Ken and Beth Melton with a photo of Brooke.
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.”

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