Several years ago I handled a products liability case against an auto manufacturer that had designed its braking system on one model so that a poorly designed sensor would turn off the antilock braking system without warning. As a result, our client was a brain damaged quadriplegic. It took much expert analysis and discovery of records to figure that out.

This is a great illustration of  why it is so important to preserve the right to thorough discovery to uncover the truth. Without a persistent plaintiffs’ lawyer forcing disclosure, GM would have kept all this secret without regard to the harm done to people.

Now we have a news story about another hidden auto defect involving a poorly designed switch. According to investigative reports in the Wall Street Journal, GM engineers knew of ignition-switch problems on the 2005 Cobalt that could disable power brakes, power steering and air bags, but continued to launch the car without correcting the defect.

GM was forced to recall 2.6 million vehicles, many of them Cobalts earlier this year because of a fault that turns odd the ignition switch while the car is being driven. Also recalled were Saturn Ion, Chevrolet HHR, Pontiac Solstice and G5 and Saturn Sky. The recall was expanded from 1.6 million to 2,591,665 cars, now including all model years of the Chevrolet Cobalt, Chevrolet HHR, Saturn Ion, Saturn Sky, Pontiac G5 and Pontiac Solstice made from 2003-2011.

It is estimated that 12 people have died and 34 people have been seriously injured because of the ignition-switch problem

The company believed the vehicles could be safely coasted off the road after a stall, according to testimony from a GM engineer in one of dozens of civil suits against the automaker because of deaths related to the ignition-switch problems.

The Chevy Cobalt ignition defect lawsuit arose from a fatal crash in which the victim was driving her Cobalt at highway speed when the ignition failed and airbags failed to deploy because the car was turned off at the time of the crash. Other who were involved in a similar situation explained to the National Vehicle Safety Administration that the car was difficult, if not impossible to steer when the ignition failed. During the 2013 court case, an engineer testified that GM believed drivers should be able to handle a car even without power steering.

To make matters worse, after the manufacturers re-engineered the faulty ignition on the Chevrolet Cobalt and Saturn Ion in 2006, they failed to create a new part number for the non-defective ignition that they designed. According to the publication in Automotive News, not following the protocol of renumbering helped stall its own engineers’ investigation into problems with the cars.

Although GM officials issued service bulletins to its dealers about the Cobalt as early as 2005, it did very little to help get defective vehicles off the roads. In a meeting on May 15, 2009, GM engineers learned that data in the black boxes of Chevrolet Cobalts confirmed a potentially fatal defect existed in hundreds of thousands of cars. However, GM did not tell this to the families of accident victims and GM customers.

In interviews, letters, and legal documents during the months and years that followed the initial report, GM said there was no evidence of any defect in their cars even though they learned about the potentially fatal defect. The U.S. government is investigating General Motors’ handling of the defect and probing reports that it knew there was a problem for years.

After levying a $1.2-billion fine on Toyota last month over an unreported safety problem with its accelerator pedals, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder said he expected that settlement to serve as a model for how prosecutors would approach future cases involving “similarly situated companies.”

Although the Japanese automaker faces a large fine, criminal prosecution of individuals involved is not likely. Since it announced the recall, GM has faced a number of private lawsuits, as well as class actions by auto owners who say the recall affected the value of their vehicles.

A wrongful death lawsuit was filed in Minnesota recently on behalf of three teenaged girls who were injured or killed in a 2006 crash. The lawsuit accuses GM of knowing about the ignition switch defect, but failing to fix the vehicles. In two private lawsuits in Texas, the plaintiffs urge GM to tell owners of affected Saturn and Cobalt cars not to drive the cars. A U.S. senator on Monday asked the federal government to force General Motors to establish a fund to compensate consumers affected by the problem.


Ken Shigley is past president of the State Bar of Georgia (2011-12), double board certified in Civil Trial Advocacy and Civil Pretrial Advocacy by the National Board of Legal Specialty Certification, and lead author of Georgia Law of Torts: Trial Preparation and Practice.  His Atlanta-based civil trial practice is focused on the representation of plaintiffs in cases of catastrophic personal injury and wrongful death.