Path to GM Defect Revelations Began with One Family's Tragedy – and Lawsuit

Without two parents’ commitment to justice in the wake of their daughter’s death in 2010, General Motors’ new CEO, Mary Barra, may never have had to testify in front of a Congressional panel to answer for the fatalities—and untold number of car accidents—associated with the car maker’s wide-ranging ignition switch defect.

In a segment called “One Last Thing” on his new primetime CNN program, host Michael Smerconish recalled the story of Ken and Beth Melton, who were guests on his show earlier in the week, and the lawsuit they pursued after their daughter Brooke’s death. That lawsuit, Smerconish said, is what brought to light GM’s almost unexplainable shortcomings in addressing and correcting the defect that, court documents say, the company was aware of as far back as 2001.

The Melton’s lawsuit, Smerconish continued, is also responsible for revealing that, for a mere $0.90 per car, GM could have fixed its ignition switch problem and saved countless lives.

“This case demands accountability; accountability not only from GM, but also from the government entity responsible for the automaker’s oversight.” Smerconish said. “We know what we know today only because of the Melton’s pursuit of justice, their willingness to file a lawsuit.”

Four days prior to Brooke’s 29th birthday, the 2005 Chevy Cobalt she was driving shut off unexpectedly, causing the vehicle to lose power to its brakes and power steering system. Brooke then had the car serviced at a local dealership, and the vehicle was returned to her with the assurance that the issues were repaired. On Brooke’s birthday, according to the accident report, she lost control of the vehicle, drove into a creek, and was killed.

Desperate for answers, Brooke’s parents retained a lawyer to look into their daughter’s death. The Melton’s lawyer then called in Mark Hood, an engineer, to attempt to piece together what may have caused Brooke to lose control of her vehicle. Hood, Smerconish said, was the first to determine that the key in Brooke’s ignition, exactly as it had four days prior, had somehow slipped from the “on” position to the “accessory” position three seconds before Brooke crashed her car. Hood then discovered that the original ignition part from Brooke’s car did not match its store-bought replacement part even though the components had the same identification number.

This tragic chain of events and the information uncovered through the Melton’s resulting lawsuit, Smerconish said, is a sign of not only the need for accountability at all levels of the consumer product industry, but a sign that our oft-criticized court system is doing its job.

“Our civil justice system, it’s often maligned. But, you know, it remains a great check on our free enterprise system,” Smerconish said. “Often, it serves as a more vigilant force than the government itself.”