DETROIT — For more than a year, a lawsuit filed by Brooke Melton’s family has caused major migraines for General Motors.
Litigation over the 29-year-old nurse’s death was settled by GM last October. But not before it laid bare how the company allowed millions of small cars to stay on the road more than a decade after GM discovered ignition switch flaws linked to at least 13 fatalities.
Now the case could upend GM’s strategy to compensate victims and limit its legal liabilities in such tragedies.
The Melton family lawyers want to reopen the case and show that GM fraudulently concealed the switch problem. If they win, more plaintiffs are likely to take the company to court or expect bigger payments.
Those payments are under the management of one of the nation’s top crisis compensation experts. GM has hired Kenneth Feinberg to settle hundreds of death and injury claims from crashes caused by the switches. Feinberg, who announced terms of his plan Monday, says there’s no limit on the total amount he can pay. But that total could rise if the Meltons’ lawyers can prove that GM fraudulently hid the switch problem, and other plaintiffs start demanding higher compensation.
The family settled the case for $5 million, but now alleges that a GM engineer who designed the switch lied under oath and the company covered it up.
At issue are the ignition switches in 2.6 million older Chevrolet Cobalts, Saturn Ions and other GM compact cars sold from 2003 to 2010. The switches can slip from “run” to “accessory,” causing engines to stall. That knocks out power steering and brakes, making the cars difficult to control, and it disables the air bags.
The Meltons face some obstacles before they get another day in court. Judges prefer not to reopen settled cases. And GM has moved the case from Cobb County, Georgia, to the federal system, avoiding, for now, a judge with extensive knowledge of GM’s conduct.
During pretrial depositions, the family’s lawyer presented evidence from an engineering expert who found that parts inside Cobalt switches had been changed after Melton’s car was manufactured. The change tightened the switches and made them unlikely to slip out of “run.”