Four years ago this week, Ken and Beth Melton got the phone call no parent wants to get.
Their 29-year-old daughter Brooke was in a Georgia hospital with a broken neck after her Chevrolet Cobalt had spun out of control and sent her into the path of another vehicle. It was Brooke’s birthday, but a doctor was on the line saying Brooke wasn’t going to survive.
“I kept thinking it’s her birthday,” recalled Beth Melton. “This can’t happen. … It’s supposed to be a happy day.”
The Meltons say they’ve been in a “constant state of grief” ever since, but they’re also angry, because they say their daughter’s fatal accident was caused by a mechanical flaw that GM knew about before Brooke ever bought her car.
Brooke Melton’s 2005 Cobalt was among the 1.6 million cars GM recalled last month for problems with ignition switches. GM has now disclosed to federal regulators that it knew of problems with its ignition switches as early as 2001. But during testimony for a lawsuit that they filed against GM, the Meltons learned that the automaker had come up with a partial fix that would stop some ignition shut-off incidents, but had made a “business decision” not to implement it.
“I was furious that this information was known about and not taken care of before in 2005,” said Ken Melton. “If it had been, my daughter would still be here and we would not be here talking about this.”
In the hospital, says Ken, he bent down and kissed his daughter’s forehead and whispered in her ear. “I whispered, ‘Brooke, I will vindicate your accident,’ because I knew it was caused by mechanical failure.”
Four days before the accident, according to the Meltons, Brooke’s car had shut off while she was driving and she had lost her power steering and her brakes. She was able to pull her car over and restart it. She called her father, and he said they should take it to a dealership in the morning.
Brooke got her car back from the dealership on March 9, 2010. She died in an accident the next day. “There was no doubt in my mind that it was caused by the same engine cutting off,” said Ken. The Meltons called a lawyer.
According to the Meltons, experts contacted by attorney Lance Cooper examined the “black box” from the accident and found that the key had slipped from the “on” to the “accessory” position three seconds before the accident, shutting off her power steering and power brakes. Brooke’s car had then hydroplaned on the wet highway and been struck by another car.
When the Meltons filed suit against GM, they learned via depositions from the automaker’s engineers that the company had been aware of problems before Brooke purchased her car in 2005, and had even considered a partial solution. Engineers were aware that if the key was jostled or stressed by a heavy dangling keychain it might slip and turn the car off. They proposed that GM keys be altered to make the opening for the key ring smaller and reduce jostling of the key.
Instead of changing the keys, however, GM designed an insert that could be added to the keys. It then sent a bulletin to dealership service managers that said the insert could be provided to car owners who came in and complained about ignition shut-offs. Under the program, according to GM warranty records, fewer than 500 drivers received the inserts.
During testimony, GM engineer David Trush, who helped implement the insert fix, called the insert a “good solution” for a “very small population” affected by the problem.
“We put the solution out in the field,” said Trush, “the solution that would solve some of the stuff.”
Pediatric nurse Brooke Melton, 29, died in this 2005 Chevy Cobalt on March 10, 2010, when the ignition allegedly shut off as she drove down a highway on a rainy night in Georgia. She then lost control of the vehicle and was hit on the passenger side by an oncoming vehicle.
Cooper, the Meltons’ attorney, then asked witness Gary Altman, who was GM’s program engineering manager for the Cobalt in 2004 and 2005, if it was true that the car company “made a business decision not to fix this problem and five months later sold [Brooke Melton] a vehicle with the problem.”
GM’s lawyer objected, but Altman answered, “That is what happened, yes.”
Altman said that the company had not mandated the change for all vehicles because it was only a partial solution. Altman agreed, however, that if GM had felt that changing the key was a 100 percent fix, it would have spent the money to do it.
He also said that he didn’t believe Melton’s car was “unsafe,” and that it “could still be maneuvered to the side of the road.”
An engineer hired by the plaintiffs as an expert witness claimed in his testimony that internal GM documents showed that GM had estimated the cost per car of making the change would be less than $1.
Altman and Trush declined repeated requests from NBC News for comment. Outside his home in suburban Detroit, Altman said, “I can’t answer that question” when asked why GM had not issued a vehicle recall till 2014.
Testimony during the case also revealed that GM made incremental changes to a part inside the ignition switch starting in 2005. It did so without telling consumers.
“It has to be money,” said Beth Melton. “It has to come down to money but that really doesn’t even make sense to me. In the end, they’re going to have to pay for it. They need to care about their customers. They need to care about human lives.”
“I’m still in shock and boiling over with anger,” said her husband Ken. “Anger that again they would sweep something under the run knowingly have the information even in their records.”
The Meltons have now settled with GM for an undisclosed sum. Their suit against a local dealership is ongoing.
In February, GM announced the recall of 1.6 million vehicles worldwide from the model years 2003 to 2007 because of an allegedly defective ignition switch. The models recalled include the Cobalt, the Pontiac G5, Saturn Ions, and Chevrolet HHRs, as well as the Solstice and Sky sports cars. Recalled years vary for each model.
The automaker first told the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration that it had learned in 2004 that if a driver jostled the ignition switch in a 2005 Cobalt it might shut down the engine. It now says it knew of problems with its ignition switches as early as 2001, during preproduction for the Saturn Ion. The company also says it will cooperate fully with federal authorities.
A high-level GM executive told NBC News the company was “deeply troubled with some decisions that were made in the past and is hoping to move forward.”
According to GM’s figures, the defect has been linked to 12 deaths. Brooke Melton’s death is not among the deaths GM listed. “If it's caused one single death, to me that's enough,” said Ken Melton. “One single death is enough to make a recall."
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First published March 14 2014, 5:10 AM