Tort Reform Would Kill The Engine of the Civil Justice System

Scartelli Olszewski P.C.

Brooke Melton died on her 29th birthday.On a rainy night in March 2010, the pediatric nurse was driving to her boyfriend’s house on a two-lane road in an Atlanta suburb when she mysteriously lost control and her car swerved into oncoming traffic. Another vehicle struck the passenger side of her 2005 Chevy Cobalt, breaking her neck and sending her car careening into a nearby creek. She later died in the hospital.Ken Melton, Brooke’s father, immediately suspected that a problem with the car had contributed to his daughter’s death. He and his wife, Beth, hired Lance Cooper, a Georgia trial lawyer.Cooper’s investigation led him to the “black box” on Brooke’s car. The data from the black box confirmed Ken Melton’s hunch: in the moments before the crash, the ignition in Brooke’s car had shut off, rendering the car powerless and unable to be driven – as Brooke cruised down the road at 58 miles per hour.Brooke’s Cobalt, it turned out, was one of many equipped with a defective ignition switch that could slide or be bumped into the “off” position by pressure as seemingly inconsequential as that exerted by the dangling weight of a bulky keychain.During his two-year investigation, Cooper discovered that General Motors had known about the ignition defect since at least 2004, six years before Brooke’s fatal crash. General Motors has since admitted to federal regulators that it knew of problems with the ignition switches as early as 2001.In the meantime, at least 12 other people have died and hundreds of other crashes are being investigated for possible connections to the faulty ignition switches.After Cooper negotiated an out-of-court settlement between the Meltons and General Motors, a document that the company had improperly withheld from the Meltons came to light. It demonstrated that GM personnel had moved to replace the defective ignition switches in newly produced cars in 2006. Rather than calling attention to the number of defective units already in drivers’ hands, though, the engineering chief who handled the change directed that the replacement switches be issued under the same exact part number as the old switches – a gross violation of engineering protocol.Finally, in January 2014, General Motors announced the recall of an astonishing 1.6 million cars that could be affected by the potentially fatal flaw. Cooper’s investigative efforts “singlehandedly set the stage” for General Motors’ decision to mount this massive recall effort, auto safety analyst Sean Kane told Bloomberg News. “But for the things he has done, this thing doesn’t happen,” Kane said.U. S. Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Missouri) would later allege during Senate hearings in April 2014 that a “culture of cover-up” existed at General Motors. Unfortunately, such cultures are not unique to either GM or to the automobile industry. Whether the agency is the National Highway Safety and Transportation Administration (NHSTA), the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), or the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), we cannot rely solely on governmental oversight bodies to guarantee the safety of the products that are sold to us.On multiple occasions before Brooke Melton died, federal regulators were aware of a problem with some GM ignition switches, but believed the company to have the problem under control and opted not to open an investigation into the issue.“This is the poster-child case for why the civil-justice system is necessary: NHTSA knew about this for a number of years, and they didn’t get to the bottom of it,” Cooper told Bloomberg.It took Lance Cooper “spending his own resources to get to the bottom of what happened,” Sen. McCaskill said to General Motors CEO Mary T. Barra during the Senate hearings.According to witness testimony during depositions in the Brooke Melton case, internal GM documents indicated that the cost to repair the problem would have been less than $1 per vehicle. As the full scope of GM’s efforts to hide such a glaringly dangerous flaw from a vehicle’s owners and from the rest of the public comes into view, the families of other people who believe their loved ones may have died as a result of the company’s decision have understandably begun to turn to the civil justice system for redress.Tort reform advocates would declaw the civil justice system, essentially vindicating GM’s calculation that hiding the problem and trying to fix it out of public view would be less expensive than a recall, irrespective of the risk to the safety of its customers and the rest of the public.The threat of lawsuits and punitive damages – of trial lawyers like Lance Cooper holding the manufacturers of consumer products to account – might be the most powerful deterrent we have against allowing corporations to reduce the value of your safety to a number that is weighed against their profit margins.Join us in telling our elected officials that we don’t want to give manufacturers carte blanche to unleash dangerously defective products in our marketplace. Tell them to stand with our functioning civil justice system and to stand against tort reform.