Plaintiffs' Lawyers Meet GM Mediator in Atlanta With Mixed Results

Plaintiffs' Lawyers Meet GM Mediator in Atlanta With Mixed Results Rebecca Breyer Lance Cooper

An unusual meeting took place in Atlanta this week between the lawyer charged with administering the GM victims’ compensation fund and lawyers suing the automaker over faulty ignition switches blamed for car accident deaths.

Afterward, the lawyer who set up the meeting, Jere Beasley of Beasley Allen in Montgomery, Ala., announced plans to give the fund a chance reach settlements with his clients.

However, Marietta lawyer Lance Cooper said Thursday the meeting will not change his effort to continue discovery in the lawsuit that Beasley said is the foundation of all the litigation against GM over the ignition switch defect. That’s the case of Ken and Beth Melton, the parents of Brooke Melton, who was killed in a crash caused by an ignition switch that suddenly turned to the “off” position as her car was in motion. That case has led to recalls of millions of GM vehicles.

The Meltons announced in May that they would return money GM paid them to settle their case confidentially. Instead, the Meltons want to pursue more claims that company executives knew of the defect for a decade and covered it up.

Wednesday’s meeting with mediator Kenneth Feinberg, who has handled victims’ funds in the wake of the 9/11 terrorist attacks and the BP oil spill, won’t affect the Melton case, Cooper said.

“The Meltons are not interested at this point in settling with GM,” Cooper said. He added that he had a motion to remand the Melton case to Cobb County State Court, fighting GM’s effort to move the case to federal court in New York and combine it with others to be frozen under the company’s bankruptcy.

Although the amount of the Melton settlement last year was confidential, GM described in a report about its internal investigation that a case identical to the Meltons’ ended in a $5 million settlement. So far, GM has refused to accept the Meltons’ return of the money, according to Cooper.

Under the terms of the GM victims compensation fund, the Meltons could keep the settlement and still seek additional compensation, Cooper said. Yet he maintained that his clients are not concerned with money but with finding the truth and making it known. “There are so many questions still to be answered, and they need to be answered,” he said Thursday.

Cooper said he has other cases that will likely be resolved through the victims’ compensation fund. But he says GM has set too many restrictions on which cases can be settled through the fund. He estimated that about 1 million cases can be covered under the terms the company has set. But the total number of cars recalled because of the ignition switch defect is far greater. Beasley estimated it at 17.1 million. Cooper said he thinks that number may be high, but certainly the series of recall announcements from GM add up to several million.

Cooper said he believes GM is only including about half the cases that should be covered by the fund. He said Feinberg impressed him as “very forthright and very sincere.” But he added, “We’re disappointed that GM has tied his hands on a number of vehicles.”

Feinberg, of Feinberg Rosen in Washington and New York, couldn’t be reached.

Cooper and Beasley said they would work together on the Melton case and others.

The meeting in Atlanta Wednesday also included Cole Portis, who heads the Beasley Allen firm’s products liability section.

“We met in Atlanta because of Lance,” said Beasley. He added that he made the plans after receiving a call from Feinberg.

Beasley said he drove to Atlanta from Montgomery with his wife and checked into a corner suite at the Ritz-Carlton Buckhead. While his wife visited her sister in the suburbs, the four men—Beasley, Portis, Cooper and Feinberg—gathered in the sitting room of Beasley’s suite for “just over two hours.”

Before the meeting, the Beasley Allen public relations department had sent a string of news releases criticizing GM, saying the company couldn’t be trusted. On Thursday, Beasley announced he is “willing to give the plan a chance.” Feinberg managed to persuade the plaintiffs lawyers that their “clients will be treated fairly,” Beasley said. He added, “We will continue to file lawsuits.” And he said victims who don’t want to go through the fund still have the option of litigation.