NHTSA’s Message to the Defense: Call Us Before We Call You

This week, while heads were rolling out the doors of the RenCen (GM headquarters) in downtown Detroit, the Chief Counsel of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration was laying down the law for defense lawyers at a Chicago legal conference.

Amid the presentations at the American Conference Institute’s 7th Annual Summit on Defending & Managing Automotive Product Liability Litigation devoted to defeating class-actions, the liability of autonomous cars and one of our personal faves –tire aging (with a shout-out to SRS’ Sean Kane!), was a warning from the government.

First, Chief Counsel O. Kevin Vincent lulled them with a feel-good “rah-rah-ree” paean to industry. And then, he made the hair on the back of their necks rise: A manufacturer’s obligation to report a defect within five days of its discovery is the law, and after a long hiatus from doing its job, NHTSA intended to take “an aggressive stance” in enforcing it.

The first offense line in the discovery of a defect was not the Office of Defects Investigation, Vincent said. It was the manufacturers themselves.

“We don’t have analysts, but your clients do. You all have ability to find these defects,” he said.

A manufacturer cannot delay a defect finding, while a safety problem meanders through an internal process involving multiple committees. It cannot hide its knowledge behind a wall of attorney work product and attorney-client privilege. It cannot wait until it’s gotten the supply chain ready to implement the recall.

And it better not wait until after it settles a plaintiff’s case for big bucks. The TREAD Act obligated NHTSA to “follow up on civil litigation that sends up red flags,” he said.  And they’d be looking for signs of foot-dragging in large civil litigation settlements. Not right away, certainly. Civil actions take years, he said. (This gives the safety problem plenty of time to fester.) How much of a settlement was enough to catch NHTSA’s attention? Vincent wouldn’t name a figure.

Melton Family Charges GM with Fraud; Asks for Sanctions

The parents of Brooke Melton, who died in March 2010 crash caused by a well-known ignition switch defect, returned to a Georgia state court, charging General Motors with fraudulent concealment and perjury in the civil liability case that was settled in September. And, just for good measure, they’ve filed a sanctions motion, via their attorneys Lance Cooper and Jere Beasley for discovery abuse and spoliation of evidence.

The Melton case has unleashed a world of hurt on General Motors – an investigation by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, Congressional oversight, class action lawsuits and general opprobrium. The company knew for nearly a decade that a loose ignition switch in six models – including the 2005-2007 Cobalt – could move from the “Run” to “Accessory” or “Off” position, turning off the power steering, anti-lock brakes and disabling the airbags, before recalling 1.6 million vehicles in North America. At least 13 deaths have been linked to the defect. The decade-long narrative of what GM knew, when it knew it, how it responded to the problem – or not – included the revelation that one of the obstacles to pinpointing the defect was a design change to the ignition switch that GM originally blamed on the supplier, but no change in the part number – a huge No-No.

In the face of a document showing that the Cobalt's lead design engineer Ray DeGiorgio signed off on the new ignition switch without assigning a new part number, GM has since admitted that he may have lied under oath.

Why Civil Litigation Matters to Safety: GM Edition

If you want to know why civil litigation matters to safety, take these links over to USA Today and read James Healey’s fine coverage of General Motor’s crappy, nine-years-too late 2005 Cobalt and Pontiac G5 recall, and attorney Lance Cooper’s request to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration for a Timeliness Query investigation. (6 Killed in GM Cars with Faulty Ignition Switch; Lawsuit: GM Knew of Cobalt Ignition Problem; and Lawyer Asks Feds to Explain Recall Timing)  

After settling a lawsuit in which a 29-year-old woman died in crash caused by a defect known within GM since 2004, the automaker announced that it would recall a subset of vehicles plagued by ignition switches that wander from the run to the accessory or off position. These shifts  create an emergency situation while the vehicle is underway, disabling the airbags while cutting off the engine power, power brakes and power steering. The defect, which GM engineers discovered in 2004, before they began selling the 2005 Cobalt, was the central issue in Melton v General Motors.

Brooke Melton, 29, died in 2010 when the ignition switch in her 2005 Cobalt slipped into the accessory position as she drove along Highway 92 in Paulding County, Ga. Melton’s Cobalt skidded into another vehicle; she died of her injuries in the crash.

The incident was initially attributed to Melton simply losing control of her car on a rainy night. But the Melton family sought the counsel of attorney Lance Cooper, after facing a legal claim from the driver in the other vehicle. Cooper, a veteran of motor vehicle defect litigation, saw something that many lawyers would have overlooked and filed suit against GM.  The records he pried out of GM’s hands after 18 months of requests for production and a court order compelling the automaker to produce what it knew about the defect, revealed a long, sorry history. GM engineers had discovered the ignition switch problem during the Cobalt’s production stage, but the company sold them anyway. GM began to receive complaints about the problem almost immediately, and tried to make them go away with an October 2005 TSB covering the 2005 Cobalt and with a later TSB involving later model years of the Cobalt, the Pontiac G5, along with 2006-2007 Chevrolet HHR, the 2005-2006 Pontiac Pursuit in Canada; the 2006-2007 Pontiac Solstice; 2003-2007 Saturn Ion; and 2007 Saturn Sky. This “fix” – an ignition key cover that changed the design from a slot to a key hole – did not solve the problem.

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