General Motors Headquarters in Detorit, MI.
General Motors Headquarters in Detorit, MI. (Photo: Ritcheypro via Wikimedia Commons.)

This story originally appeared in sister publication the National Law Journal.

General Motors Co. is looking into how its legal department handled a wrongful death case that helped lead to disclosure of the ignition switch defect at the center of the company’s recent recalls.

As part of its internal investigation, the automaker is assessing whether its top executives, including general counsel Michael Millikin, might have attempted to contain public knowledge of the defect, The New York Times reported on Sunday.

GM spokesman Greg Martin emailed a statement to The NLJ: “Mr. Valukas has free rein to go wherever the facts may lead,” referring to former U.S. Attorney Anton Valukas, chairman of Jenner & Block, who is conducting GM’s internal investigation.

GM has recalled 2.6 million vehicles and acknowledged that 13 people have died due to the defects. U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx on Friday announced that GM would be fined the maximum $35 million for its failure to promptly report the defects to the public.

Much of the probe of GM’s lawyers, according to the Times, focuses on the months just before and after the company settled a lawsuit brought by the parents of Brooke Melton, 29, who died in 2011 after she lost control of her 2006 Cobalt. The ignition had slipped into the “accessory” position, shutting off the engine.

Plaintiffs attorney Lance Cooper has maintained all along that GM’s sudden settlement in the case in September, one month before trial, came soon after its engineers had said in depositions that they were unaware of the problems with the ignition. King & Spalding represented GM in the Melton case.

“What happened was our expert … discovered there were differences in the switches and the switch in Brooke Melton’s car,” Cooper told the NLJ. “I presented that information to the lead design engineer, and he said he wasn’t aware of any changes and didn’t approve the changes and GM knew nothing.”

Cooper told The NLJ that the case settled “when senior level management figured this out, and I was asking before we settled the case, when are you going to recall this product?”

He continued: “Within a month or so of the case settling, they presented it to a high-level committee, who realized they couldn’t keep doing this.” Cooper, founding partner of The Cooper Firm in Marietta, Ga., has moved to refile the case.

Documents provided to Congress indicated that Ray DeGiorgio, lead engineer for the Cobalt ignition switches, approved the changes. In congressional hearings, GM chief executive officer Mary Barra was at a loss to explain why DeGiorgio appeared to have lied under oath.

In his new complaint, filed on May 12, Melton’s parents are seeking sanctions against GM, claiming that DeGiorgio perjured himself.

Contact Amanda Bronstad at abronstad@alm.com.