Lance Cooper (John Disney/Daily Report)
Four days before a crucial hearing, lawyers announced a surprise settlement Friday for a Georgia couple suing General Motors on claims that an ignition switch defect killed their daughter.
The amount and terms are confidential, according to lawyers for Ken and Beth Melton. Their lawsuit over the 2010 death of Brooke Melton, 29, ultimately identified an ignition defect that caused cars to stall at highway speeds, leading to recalls of millions of cars with the faulty switch and launching an avalanche of similar suits.
GM settled with the Meltons for $5 million in 2013. But the parents sought to rescind the deal and give back the money after hearing evidence that the company knew of the defect without taking steps to recall the cars.
Cobb County State Court Judge Kathryn Tanksley was to hear arguments Tuesday over the Meltons’ unusual subpoena to see notes about the case from GM’s lawyers at King & Spalding.
GM’s lawyers cried foul and said the subpoenaed information obviously was covered by attorney-client confidentiality.
The Meltons said that their demand was justified by the evidence of a decadelong corporate cover-up of a deadly defect, and that correcting the faulty ignition switch earlier could have saved Brooke Melton’s life. They based their subpoena on the “crime fraud exception” to attorney-client privilege and work product protection.
But any preparations for the hearing were stopped with the deal that ended the case.
The Meltons’ lawyer, Lance Cooper of Marietta, noted in a phone interview Friday that March 10 had been the fifth anniversary of Brooke’s death. “It’s been a long year for them,” he said. “They just made the decision. They’ve been through a lot emotionally.”
Easing the way to their decision, Cooper said, were his talks with Kenneth Feinberg, administrator of the victims compensation fund GM set up in response to lawsuits over the same ignition switch defect that the Meltons’ case identified. Cooper said Feinberg told him GM had received a total of 4,180 claims for compensation and has determined that 64 deaths and 108 other injury claims are eligible for compensation.
“But for the Meltons’ efforts, most of these injured drivers and passengers would not have received any compensation,” Cooper said.
“They are grieving parents who simply wanted the truth and for no one else to suffer a similar loss,” Cooper said in a statement Friday. “One of the most important issues for the Meltons was accountability. This is a company that concealed this defect for years. They wanted to hold GM accountable, and that is what refiling the lawsuit did.”
Cooper has said repeatedly since the second suit was filed that he didn’t think the Meltons were interested in settling, and that they were interested more in truth than money.
In Friday’s statement, Cooper said his clients are “hoping that Brooke’s death serves as a catalyst to motivate General Motors and other major automakers to address deadly defects promptly, instead of ignoring them.” He also said they hope their efforts help to prevent “other needless tragedies.”
Cooper’s co-counsel, Jere Beasley, called the Meltons “heroes for American consumers” in the statement released Friday.
“The fact that Mr. and Mrs. Melton would be willing to take on a corporate giant and end up being directly responsible for alerting both the government and the public to a massive cover-up by General Motors is one of the most courageous things that I’ve experienced in my career as a lawyer,” said Beasley, whose Alabama firm partnered with Cooper for the second lawsuit.
The Meltons’ case served as the foundation for multidistrict litigation in New York and fueled investigations by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and the U.S. Congress.
GM’s attorney for the Melton case, Robert Ingram of Moore Ingram Johnson & Steele in Marietta, said the company had instructed him not to comment on the settlement.
King & Spalding was represented in the fight over the subpoena by Buddy Darden of McKenna Long & Aldridge, who could not be reached on Friday.
In briefs about the subpoena, the firm argued: “Plaintiffs seek to throw open the door to all of King & Spalding’s most protected opinion work-product based solely on the hope they will discover something useful inside.”
The firm argued that fulfilling the “inappropriate” request would present a “daunting and wasteful challenge” as well as an “extreme invasion” of what should legally be confidential communication that has never been shared even with the client.
Sean Kane of Safety Research & Strategies in Rehoboth, Massachusetts, an auto industry safety analyst who has followed the Melton case closely, said Friday he expects to see the case continue to influence not only cars but consumer products in general.
“They have done more than anyone,” Kane said of the Meltons and Cooper. “They have advanced the ball so far that the rest of the litigation will continue to pick up where they left off.”
The Meltons’ attorneys plan to discuss the settlement further in a conference call Monday.