As the sun was setting on a stormy Georgia day, Brooke Melton was 30 miles outside of Atlanta in her Chevy Cobalt. It was March 10, 2010, her birthday, and the 29-year-old pediatric nurse was on her way to her boyfriend’s to celebrate.
Melton had purchased the white GM Cobalt in 2005, the year the four-cylinder compact first rolled out of factories, and lately it had been giving her trouble. A week earlier the engine had unexpectedly shut off. Melton managed to pull over to the side of the road and restart it, but the incident shook her. She phoned her father, who advised her to bring the car in to the local dealership. So she wouldn’t forget, Melton scribbled a list of the problems in a notebook: “Key locking in the ignition,” she wrote. “Suddenly shutting off while driving and unable to turn vehicle.” Under “strange knocking sound” she underlined “ignition problems.” Mechanics at the dealership assured her nothing was wrong, and after cleaning the fuel injection gave Melton back her car a few days later with a clean bill of health.
As dusk bled into darkness early the next evening, she was driving north over a stick-straight section of Highway 9 at 58 mph when it happened again. The Cobalt’s engine shut off and the lights inside and outside the car dimmed. Melton hit the brakes, but no power from the engine meant no anti-lock brakes and no power steering. The car fell into a skid. Tires squealing, the Cobalt’s back end fishtailed, coming up on her left. Melton instinctively spun the wheel counterclockwise.
Three and a half seconds after the engine quit, Melton was the reluctant driver’s seat passenger of a car hydroplaning sideways across the centerline. In the southbound lane, bearing down at highway speed, was a gray Ford Focus driven by a 26-year-old man from nearby Acworth, GA, his two-year-old daughter strapped in the back.
The Focus plowed into the passenger side of Melton’s Cobalt: 3,000 pounds of steel, glass, plastic, and human smashing into 3,000 pounds of steel, glass, plastic, and human. While Brooke’s lap belt glued her waist to the seat, her shoulder harness went slack the instant the engine shut off. As the side of her car caved in, Melton’s torso, neck, and head whipped violently to the right, the force equivalent to falling from the 16th floor of a building. The Cobalt spun around and was heaved 15 feet down a hill, ending up backward in a creek swollen with rainwater. Rescuers found Melton slumped over the steering wheel, her body submerged up to her shoulders.
Brooke Melton was not the first to crash her GM car after the engine stalled. Over the course of a decade, dozens of people died and scores more were injured on American roads. Four months earlier, Hasaya Chansuthus was heading home to Nashville in her 2006 Cobalt when she sideswiped another car, her engine shut off and the Cobalt raced off the highway. She was killed when her head struck the steering wheel. In 2009, an 11-month old baby was paralyzed and his grandmother and aunt were killed in Pennsylvania after the Cobalt’s engine turned off without warning and was hit by another car. Earlier that year, 81-year-old Marie Sachse lost control of her 2004 Saturn Ion outside of St. Louis and died eight hours later from internal injuries. In 2006, 18-year-old Natasha Weigel was a few miles from home in eastern Wisconsin when the engine quit and the Cobalt shot off the highway, killing Weigel and another teenager.
Then there was the tragic story of Candice Anderson, who was motoring over a quiet Texas road in 2005 with her boyfriend when the engine stalled and she lost control of her Saturn Ion. Her boyfriend died in the accident and police, pointing to skid marks that indicated that she hadn’t attempted evasive maneuvers, charged Anderson, who suffered broken limbs and internal injuries in the crash, with intoxication manslaughter even though a blood test came back mostly negative (there were trace amounts of an anti-depressant). Three years later, Anderson avoided jail by pleading guilty to the lesser charge of criminally negligent homicide and paying a fine.
Countless articles have been written about General Motors and its massive recalls earlier this year. What hasn’t been fully told is how GM might have gotten away with multiple counts of consumercide were it not for the efforts of three men: a Georgia lawyer, a Mississippi mechanic, and a Florida engineer.
Working together, they unraveled the mystery of why Brooke Melton and scores of others suffered fatal or otherwise catastrophic accidents after their vehicles shut down without warning.
What follows is their story.
Beth Melton answered the phone. On the other end of the line was a doctor, who told Beth that her daughter Brooke had been in a car accident. Brooke’s neck was broken and she suffered severe internal injuries. It was unlikely she would survive.
“I kept thinking ‘it’s her birthday,’” Beth Melton said later. “‘This can’t happen… It’s supposed to be a happy day.’”
By the time Beth and her husband Ken got to the hospital, Brooke was gone.
Ken bent down to kiss his daughter’s forehead. He felt a piece of him had died along with her. Overcome with grief, he was also furious. Brooke would never lose control on a road she had driven thousands of times. She had told him about the problems with her Cobalt. If not Brooke’s fault, it had to be the car.
He whispered in her ear: “I will vindicate you.”
Ten months after the Meltons buried their daughter an insurance adjuster contacted them, concerned that the driver of the other car might sue Brooke’s estate. He recommended they confer with an attorney, and gave them a name: Lance Cooper from nearby Marietta, Georgia.
During their initial February 2011 meeting in Cooper’s office, the Meltons produced a recall notice relating to a defect in the Cobalt’s power steering that had arrived in the mail after Brooke died. Despite the conclusions of the police accident report, which claimed that Brooke had been driving too fast for the road conditions and lost control when she hydroplaned over a sheet of water, the Meltons were adamant that the fault lie with the car.
Cooper, 51, believed this was possible. Two decades earlier, fresh out of Emory Law School, Cooper had taken on his first product liability case, involving a Ford Bronco II. A cultural touchstone, the Bronco II was not only infamous for having been the little brother to the Bronco, which ferried a fleeing O.J. Simpson as a battalion of police cars and news helicopters gave chase on national television, it also had a woeful safety record. Prone to rollovers, the Bronco II was so unstable that a 1989 Consumer Reports rated the car’s handling as “poor” in a test that simulated rapid lane changes and urged its readers to stay away. The Institute of Highway Safety called it the most deadly SUV on the road. The Bronco II was so dangerous that federal accident statistics reveal that 1 in 500 Ford Bronco IIs ever manufactured has rolled over and killed at least one person in the car.
“I kept thinking ‘it’s her birthday. This can’t happen… It’s supposed to be a happy day.’”
Despite the Bronco II’s tipsy reputation and woeful safety record, it was never recalled for stability reasons, and Ford opted not to redesign the SUV from the ground up. Instead the automaker instituted mostly cosmetic changes, perhaps the biggest being the name, which changed from Bronco II to the Explorer. To shave costs Ford manufactured the vehicles in the same factory and on the same too-narrow assembly lines as the Bronco. The Explorer was marginally better from a rollover perspective. Only 1 in every 2700 Explorers manufactured between 1991 and 2000 rolled over and killed someone in the car. Yet the Explorer remained top-heavy, its roof so weak that if you flipped one upside down and lowered it to the ground, it could cave in under its own weight.
While Ford banned its own drivers from performing stability tests after an Explorer rolled over on a test track, the company sold millions to an unsuspecting public. Cooper considered himself well-educated and informed, but until his first Bronco II case it had never occurred to him that the U.S. government would allow a dangerously unsafe vehicle to remain on America’s roads for almost 10 years.
“The Bronco II litigation opened my eyes,” Cooper says. Ford “had options to fix the stability problems and chose not to because of the cost. As a result, this unstable vehicle was sold to the public and there were literally thousands of rollovers.”
Brooke Melton scribbled a list of the problems with her Chevy Cobalt in a notebook
After Cooper settled with Ford, more accident cases came his way. Cooper handled Chrysler minivan “Liftgate” lawsuits involving a weak latch in the back that could pop open after impact at speeds under 20 mph, ultimately killing 41 people, mostly children, and sparred with tire companies. He litigated pickup truck roof crush cases and faulty seatbelts. But he didn’t always win. In the mid-1990s Cooper took his lumps on his first GM case, a minor accident that Cooper says caused the driver to lose control, resulting in a Chevy Blazer rolling over. Jurors bought General Motors’ defense: The driver caused the accident, and if the car went out of control it wasn’t a stability problem.
“Up until then, we’d been successful,” Cooper says. “It made me more careful in the cases we took.”
He also concluded that federal safety standards governing automobiles were woefully inadequate. Then again, “it’s the federal government,” he says, “so what do you expect?” Those staffing the National Highway Traffic and Safety Administration (NHTSA) are “well-intentioned, well-qualified people, but they’re usually underfunded and more often than not at the mercy of the manufacturers.”
Which is why he views the civil jury system as critical. Although attorneys are often justly lampooned, litigation has been more effective at shaping responsible business practices than government. It’s why trucks beep when they back up and farm machinery comes equipped with safety guards, why asbestos no longer poisons homes, schools and workplaces, and fast-food restaurants, aware of their super-sized liability, convinced meat packagers to clean up processing plants. When juries speak, Corporate America listens.
Of course, it’s hard to think of trial lawyers as brave foot soldiers in the war against corporate malfeasance. More often they are perceived as corrupt, dishonest, greedy, heartless hypocrites, ambulance chasers who are not only a drain on the economy but may be a threat to national security. Is it a coincidence that a majority of United States Senators list their occupation as attorney? Clad in $3,000 suits, some trial lawyers jet around in private planes, a hundred times richer than any judge. The public is convinced they cry crocodile tears for their crippled clients while gnawing on upwards of 40 percent of the take (plus expenses).
Still, as the old saying goes, everybody hates lawyers, except his own. What’s more, an attorney like Cooper works on contingency and is highly motivated since he only gets paid if he’s successful. If he loses, he gets nothing. He shoulders the risk of developing a case that can run anywhere from hundreds of thousands to millions of dollars and take years to resolve. It’s a sad fact that in the absence of effective government oversight trial lawyers like Cooper have become self-appointed national auto safety czars.
And so it was with Brooke Melton’s case. But before any of this could happen, Cooper needed to find an expert to find out why Brooke Melton’s car had crashed.
Charlie Miller has been a grease monkey for almost his entire life. Born in Tippo, a tiny town in the heart of the Mississippi Delta, Miller overhauled his first engine when he was 12. He put himself through a local college working as a mechanic while supporting an addiction to drag racing and after he graduated he become a professional hot rod driver. In 1974 he opened an auto repair shop in Merigold, but it was 15 years before he was asked to offer an expert opinion, and only because of happenstance. A member of his race team’s pit crew crashed a Ford Bronco into a ditch and the vehicle caught fire. The crewmate escaped the car and toppled into the ditch, where lighted gasoline poured into the water, burning his leg off and part of his hand.
While the man recuperated in a hospital, a friend of his — an attorney — retained a fuel systems expert from California to inspect the charred Bronco corpse for a possible lawsuit against Ford. The lawyer asked Miller to tag along, because anything he could contribute could help save their friend money. The out-of-town expert analyzed the fuel system and concluded that the carburetor overflowed and the needle valve stuck. This, he ventured, allowed the fuel to spurt out.
“Charlie,” the attorney asked, “is that what you think happened?”
“Well,” Miller replied, “not really.” He thought it was more likely a design flaw. Ford had routed the Bronco’s plastic fuel line underneath the vehicle, where it could easily get cut. Miller believed the gas leak originated from underneath the driver’s seat.
“Show me,” the lawyer said.
Miller did. There it was.
“Get the cameras back out,” the lawyer said. “We got to re-film.”
After that, insurance companies called, then plaintiffs’ attorneys whose cases Miller had either aided or eviscerated. Over the years Miller has investigated hundreds of car and truck carcasses, and never knew what he’d find until he dug into a car’s mechanicals. In his experience crashes could be caused by any number of things — driver error, incomplete or incompetent maintenance, poor design, a faulty part, or just plain bad luck. Then came a December 2011 phone call from Lance Cooper, who got his name from a fellow attorney.
Cooper asked Miller to travel to Atlanta to conduct a thorough mechanical inspection of Brooke Melton’s car. When Miller arrived, he encountered one hell of a wreck. The Cobalt looked as if it had been tossed into a huge trash compacter that didn’t get to finish the job. The passenger side and roof were caved in, the front wheel pointed inward while the rear wheel jutted out, white paint was badly scraped, and the back fender hung off the rear like a tail that had been attached in the wrong place. Cooper had filled Miller in on the basic outline of the case. He knew what had happened to Brooke Melton, not that he allowed himself to think about it. He had a job to do.
Once he photographed the car from a variety of angles, Miller got down to business, plugging a diagnostic computer under the dash to determine what was and wasn’t working. He wanted to see if the Cobalt’s wiring had been damaged in the accident. It hadn’t. He checked the engine control module. It was fine. Then he turned to the body control module, a small computer that handles the electric windows, locks, defroster, and heater. It was OK, too. He looked at the antilock brakes, which were completely functional. The front airbag checked out, too. It had not deployed in the crash, but this wasn’t a head-on collision, and Brooke’s Cobalt didn’t come with side air bags. The only module Miller couldn’t access controlled the power steering. Still, both of its power sources were available, and the electric power steering module had voltage getting to it. Despite the recall notice Cooper shared with him, Miller didn’t believe power steering was to blame.
He knew what had happened to Brooke Melton, not that he allowed himself to think about it. He had a job to do.
Upon completing his baseline diagnostics, Miller dug up a copy of Brooke’s handwritten note. Two entries caught his eye: “Key locking in the ignition” and “Suddenly shutting off while driving, and unable to turn vehicle.”
That’s not right, Miller thought. Older cars were equipped with hydraulic assist power steering, so if the engine went dead, it became hard to turn. Not so with newer makes like the Cobalt, which came equipped with electric power steering. Whether the engine was running or not shouldn’t make any difference.
He reread the note. It was, he says, as if Brooke were sending him “a special message” from the grave. Something must have cut off the 12 volts to the system. Pawing through paperwork he found a printout of the data downloaded from the Cobalt’s black box. Virtually all new cars have black boxes, as do many earlier models, which automakers rely on to assess vehicle performance but can also identify safety problems. When Miller started the engine with the ignition switch in the ‘on’ position, however, everything worked fine.
The information captured by the “black box” showed how long before the crash the engine shut off.
One key piece of data involved the car’s speed and the engine’s rpms in the moments before the crash. Five seconds before the accident, the engine was turning at 2,048 rpms and the car was traveling at 58 mph. Four seconds before, the rpms were down to 1984 rpms while the speed held constant at 58 mph. Three seconds before the collision the car’s speed and engine rpms registered zero.
“It’s impossible for a vehicle to go from 58 to zero in one second, and also impossible for an engine to go from 1,984 rpm to zero in one second,” Miller says. “Typically, in a case like this, we see the rpm just slowly diminish. By this going to zero, this told me, as a mechanic, that the reporting status of the powertrain control module — that’s the module that reports rpm and mile per hour — had lost power.”
It was conceivable that something had disrupted the wiring harness. If Brooke had run over something hard and sharp, for instance, it could have shot into the car’s undercarriage and sliced a wire. If that were the case, however, Miller wouldn’t have been able to access that module; it would have been dead. With power put to it, all he had to do was flick the ignition switch to the ‘on’ position and everything worked perfectly. As he thought about it, the only thing that could have interrupted the power was the ignition switch, which must have turned off on its own accord.
Why would that be? When Miller rotated the switch he noted how easy it was to move. It didn’t feel like other ignition switches he had handled. It was like a ballpoint pen with too weak a spring. This lack of springiness, he deduced, could have allowed the ignition switch to jump out of the ‘on’ position with very little pressure.
He had isolated a potential culprit in the form of a defective part, but as far as he could tell it might be nothing more than a single bad ignition switch, a one-off. If 99 percent of 1 million parts a company manufactured were good, that meant 10,000 were bad. Brooke Melton could have gotten one of these. It could be that she was simply tragically unlucky.
Returning to Mississippi, Miller trekked to a nearby salvage yard, forked over $80 for a steering column from a 2005 Cobalt, and extracted the ignition switch. It looked “very similar to Miss Melton’s,” Miller says, meaning it also lacked torque. At his local GM dealer he purchased a new ignition switch for that same 2005 Cobalt. It also appeared identical to the two other AC Delco switches down to the part number (10392423). But when he played with it he found that the new switch possessed significantly more springiness.
To measure the torque would require ingenuity, since there existed no off-the-shelf tool for this, but Miller was an able improviser. He scrounged up his Bass Pro Shops fish scale and hooked it to the ignition key to weigh the force required to turn the key ‘off.’ After trying it several times on the switch from the salvage yard, he swapped it out of the steering column with the new part, which required twice the force to move the switch from the ‘on’ position. Miller snatched an old screwdriver he had ground into a makeshift tool to manually flip the switch on and off. Just as he suspected, the new switch was much harder to turn.
This gave Miller pause. While the ignition switches were manufactured six years apart, GM had given no indication that it had reengineered the part. If it had, the automaker would have stamped it with a new number. Given what he knew thus far, Miller was now sure the defect went beyond Brooke’s car. He thought it was conceivable a bad batch of parts had escaped from the factory. If so, other drivers — Miller didn’t know how many – could be at risk.
Given the tools at his disposal in his garage, Miller had taken his investigation as far as he could. To learn more, he would need to x-ray the ignition switch from Brooke Melton’s car. Lance Cooper would have to sign off on it and GM’s representatives would have to agree with the testing protocol and be present to maintain the chain of custody and ensure the integrity of the evidence.
This would take time to orchestrate. Automakers are notorious for stretching out litigation. The strategy serves several purposes. The longer it takes, the more it weakens plaintiffs’ resolve and bleeds attorneys, who must front the costs of developing a lawsuit. It also means that plaintiffs sometimes die waiting for their cases to make it to trial. This also benefits automakers, since death cases cost far less than accident settlements, which take into account lost wages over a remaining lifetime plus the cost of providing lifelong medical care.
Indeed, a compensation expert retained by GM valued a deceased 17-year-old student at $2.2 million while a dead married 25-year-old father of two earning $46,000 a year was worth about $4 million. (If that same married father of two earned more, say, $75,000, he would be eligible for $5.1 million). Contrast these proposed payouts with those of a married 40-year-old paraplegic — GM would be willing to offer $6.6 million – and a 10-year-old paraplegic, who GM estimated could receive $7.8 million.
Miller wasn’t surprised it took seven months before everyone could assemble at his garage to witness his sending off Brooke Melton’s ignition switch to the lab. Unfortunately, the x-rays didn’t reveal much. Miller couldn’t see a break in the spring or damage to the unit.
“Basically,” he told me, “what it told me was there shouldn’t be anything wrong with this switch from a physical failure standpoint.”
There was only one thing left to do: take the ignition switch apart and examine its internal components.
For this, Miller would need help.