A civil lawsuit against General Motors claims the car company knew of an ignition switch issue in the Chevy Cobalt back in 2004 but failed to act on the information for 10 years.
The claim argues that GM acted negligently in refusing to issue a recall until Thursday, 10 years after the problem was first discovered. According to a statement released in conjunction with the recall announcement, General Motors said they are aware of at least six deaths in five Cobalt crashes in which the airbags failed to deploy. The lawsuit claims that the ignition switch issue caused power steering and brake failure, and it cut power to essential safety systems like anti-lock brakes and airbags.
The suit alleges that at least one GM engineer experienced the ignition switch issue during the initial testing stage back in 2004, but the company did little to address the problem. Instead of ordering a recall, GM sent out a technical service bulletin to dealerships in 2005 that informed them how to install a snap-on key cover that was designed to help with the ignition problem, but dealers were only supposed to install the cover if a customer complained. The bulletin also failed to tell dealers that they should inform buyers about the potential switch issue.
One of the Cobalt owners who lost her life while driving the unsafe vehicle was pediatric nurse Brooke Melton, who was involved in a fatal crash on her 29th birthday. Melton’s family stated that she had taken her Cobalt into the dealer because she was experiencing ignition switch problems, but the snap-on cover was not installed. The fatal accident occurred just one day after she returned to pick up her car from the dealer.
GM later settled with Melton’s family out of court.
General Motors estimates that it will fix nearly 800,000 of its 2005-2007 Chevy Cobalts and the mechanically similar 2007 Pontiac G5 compact.
Sean Sullivan comments
This story seems eerily reminiscent of the old Ford Pinto case that made Ralph Nader a household name. This type of case revolves around what most people know as “punitive damages.” Punitive damages are payments awarded to Plaintiffs in an effort to punish a Defendant for extreme and outrageous conduct.
Usually it results in a very large award of money (hundreds of thousands or millions). It is never good when someone is able to prove that a company had knowledge there was a problem, could have fixed it, and did not. This will be an interesting case to watch as it unfolds. It seems highly likely that there will be a very large amount of money awarded at some point in this case.
Related source: USA Today