Lance Cooper represents the parents of a woman killed in a crash blamed on a faulty part. General Motors settled the claims against it; a trial against the car dealer is set for June.
Lance Cooper represents the parents of a woman killed in a crash blamed on a faulty part. General Motors settled the claims against it; a trial against the car dealer is set for June. (Rebecca Breyer)

Last week, as the national media and the U.S. Congress credited Lance Cooper’s discovery with exposing a corporate cover-up and federal regulatory lapse and pushing General Motors to recall 1.5 million cars with a potentially deadly ignition defect, Cooper was in his Marietta office doing what he usually does: preparing for a trial, initiating a new lawsuit and investigating other potential cases.

“It was a long, hard journey getting at the truth,” Cooper said in an interview after the congressional hearings. “It’s frankly a shocking story when you look back at how much GM knew and when they knew it.”

These days, most of Cooper’s work is building on what he learned from his now-famous case in Cobb County State Court, Melton v. GM. The revelations in documents and depositions that the company knew about the fault in the ignition switch and hid it have let loose waves of criticism at the carmaker.

“Lied” was the word U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., used when she opened the hearing last week before the Senate Subcommittee on Consumer Protection, which she chairs. The senator linked Cooper’s dogged pursuit of GM to the recall and the investigation now in progress.

Cooper’s clients, Kenneth and Mary Melton, settled confidentially with GM in September 2013. But their case continues against the dealer that worked on their daughter’s 2005 Chevrolet Cobalt the day before she died in 2010. The lawsuit contends the dealer’s service department had a bulletin from GM noting a problem with the ignition and suggesting a repair if customers complained. It wasn’t a recall, just a memo.

But the suggested repair wasn’t done on Brooke Melton’s car when she took it in, saying it had suddenly shut down for no apparent reason. Instead, the dealer cleaned the fuel injection system and told her the problem was solved, the lawsuit claims. She died the next day, after her Cobalt veered into oncoming traffic, was hit broadside by another vehicle and rolled off a bank into a creek.

The Meltons claim that the car lost power suddenly, causing the accident.

Matthew Stone of Freeman Mathis & Gary represents Thornton Chevrolet Inc., which moved the case to Douglas County, where the dealer is located, from Cobb County State Court after GM settled its part. Stone said he couldn’t comment. But the dealer is disputing liability and a trial is set for June 9.

Also last week, Cooper joined lawyers across the country in a class action against GM seeking repairs and damages for loss of value of cars owned by those who haven’t been injured. Showing how broadly this case has worked its way through the culture, Jon Stewart of “The Daily Show” referred to the potential class as GM’s “surviving customers” last week.

Stewart didn’t mention Cooper by name. But members of Congress did, repeatedly, as did newspapers and television outlets across the country.

Despite a run for the state Legislature—on the Republican ticket—and a term as the head of the Georgia Trial Lawyers Association, Cooper doesn’t come across as seeking the spotlight that tracked him last week.

“He’s one of the few trial lawyers who doesn’t like to bring a lot of attention to himself. He’s a very humble guy,” said Sean Kane, an auto-safety analyst with Safety Research & Strategies Inc. of Rehoboth, Mass., who has consulted with Cooper on cases over the past 18 years, including the Melton case. “He doesn’t come across like the image of lawyers. He’s a very down-to-earth guy.”

Cooper is a veteran products liability plaintiffs’ attorney with high dollar wins on his résumé. He’s taken on big carmakers since the 1990s, with some success. He ran one unsuccessful campaign as a Republican candidate for the Georgia State Senate 10 years ago. He is married to Sonja Cooper, an inactive member of the state bar who left her job as a prosecutor with the Cobb County District Attorney’s office when their first child was born. They now have five.

“He’s a free-market Republican kind of guy,” said Kane. “I’m a Northeastern, liberal, latte-sipping Volvo driver. This is a nonpartisan issue. This is about how our systems work together in concert. Government doesn’t figure things out a lot of times. This is why we have a civil justice system.”

A quote from Kane about Cooper juiced headlines last month, with help from the Internet. “He single-handedly set the stage for this recall,” Kane told Bloomberg News about Cooper. “But for the things he has done, this thing doesn’t happen.”

It was USA Today that first linked the ignition switch problem to Cooper’s discovery, according to Victoria Schneider, who became Cooper’s first marketing director in December 2012. In November 2013, she launched a new website with more information about the firm and its staff: the one solo lawyer, two paralegals, an office administrator, an assistant and the marketing director. One of the paralegals, Doreen Lundrigan, has assisted Cooper on the Melton case.

Schneider said about 50 media outlets have contacted Cooper since the GM recall news broke in February—plus a host of other lawyers seeking information about Cooper’s lawsuit against GM. She said she had to nudge the boss a bit to help him become more proactive in talking to media. The website now includes links to recent news stories mentioning the firm—approximately 140, most of them about the GM ignition case.

During the three months that followed the confidential settlement between the Meltons and GM, company executives made plans for the recall. But first, they elevated a long-time employee, Mary Barra, who told Congress she knew nothing about it until after she took over as CEO in January.

Ironically, the CEO told Congress that Brooke Melton, the 29-year-old pediatric nurse whose death brought Cooper into the case, is not among the 13 deaths that GM has publicly connected to the ignition defect because the company is counting only front end crashes as related to the defect.

Cooper said he fears there are “more than we know” who’ve been hurt or killed.

The recall GM first announced was only for about half the cars—and half the deaths—described before Congress. GM broadened the recall three days after Cooper intervened with a Feb. 19 certified letter to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration administrator, requesting a specific investigation called a timeliness query. Cooper wrote that GM had failed to report the defect within the required five days after learning about it, and that the recall didn’t cover nearly all the models affected. Cooper listed the models that should be included in the recall, which later were added. He also noted that GM suggested in its first recall announcement that company executives’ “knowledge of the defect is recent,” and then took aim at that claim.

Cooper’s letter cited testimony of GM engineers and documents produced in the Melton case under court order from Cobb County State Court Judge Kathryn Tanksley. Cooper said this evidence showed “that the automaker actually knew about the defective ignition switch in these vehicles in 2004 before it began selling the 2005 MY Cobalt.”

Cooper said in the letter that he learned from the Melton case that GM executives and engineers experienced the problem firsthand with the ignition switching from the “run” to the “accessory” position while test-driving the Cobalt before it ever went to market.

“This recall is nine years overdue and incomplete,” Cooper wrote.

No reply came from the government. But GM doubled the recall three days later.

Cooper deflects the credit being given to him for the recall and points to others: the parents who didn’t believe the crash was their daughter’s fault; the investigator who found the faulty ignition; and the judge who ordered GM to produce documents the company had denied existed.

The investigator was Mark Hood of McSwain Engineering Inc. in Pensacola, Fla., hired by the Meltons. Cooper said Hood was trying to understand why the “black box” download from Brooke’s car showed the power had shut down three seconds before the crash, and why the key was turned to auxiliary instead of run. He went to a parts dealer and bought a dozen ignition switches for the Cobalt. He discovered the new switches were different, stronger than the old one from Brooke’s Cobalt. But even though the part number was the same, the part had been changed.

GM took particular heat from the secret part switch on Capitol Hill last week. The CEO couldn’t explain or defend it. And it served as the “smoking gun” in the Melton case, Cooper said.

Cooper said he has found some lessons for business, saying, “Most of the time with a robust civil justice system, a corporation’s bad conduct is going to be discovered.”