Once a mistake in the engineering of a car is made known, the maker of the vehicle has a responsibility to fix the mistake. However, to try to remedy the mistake in new cars, without recalling old cars with the defect, is illegal, and in some cases, potentially fatal. This was allegedly the case with General Motors (G.M.) when it realized that the ignition switch in more than 2 million of its cars was faulty. The car company worked with Delphi, the supplier that made the part, to redesign the part so that the flaw was fixed, but neither party allegedly bothered to alert the public to the flaw, which existed in millions of cars which had already been sold.
When Brooke Melton’s Cobalt suddenly shut off, causing her fatal accident in 2010, her family sued G.M. and Mark Hood was hired to investigate the accident. Hood photographed, X-rayed, and disassembled the ignition switch in his attempt to figure out how the engine suddenly shut off. Then he bought a replacement part at a local GM dealership.
Although the replacement switch that Hood bought had the same identification number as the old switch, it contained significant differences. A tiny metal plunger was not included in the replacement part and the switch’s spring was more compressed. According to Hood, there was also a difference in the amount of force needed to turn the engine on and off.
As Hood’s investigation progressed, he realized that both GM and Delphi had realized the mistake and changed the part some time in 2006 or early 2007. The new part made it less likely that the driver could bump the ignition key, causing the car to cut off power to the engine and deactivate the airbags.
Lance Cooper, the attorney representing the Melton family in the lawsuit, confronted Raymond DeGiorgio, the head switch engineer on the Cobalt, with the differences between the two switches. DeGiorgio acknowledged the differences between the two parts, but said that he could not explain why the new part had not been given a different identification number.
“I was not aware of the detent plunger switch change,” he testified in his deposition. “We certainly did not approve a detent plunger switch change.”
However, the paper trail tells a different story. In the federal filings for the recent recall of certain G.M. vehicles containing the defect, G.M. confessed than an engineer (whom they did not name) had in fact signed a document in April of 2006 which approved design changes in the switch. Government investigators have since requested that G.M. provide all documents related to the switch change and who within the company approved it.
Since Hood’s discovery of the allegedly clandestine part change, G.M. has issued a worldwide recall of 2.6 million vehicles, including Cobalts, Pontiacs, and Saturns. G.M. has said that it will replace the old part with the new one at no cost to vehicle owners. In the mean time, the company’s website contains a video which assures consumers that the old switches are still supposedly safe, so long as nothing is attached to the ignition key. A reported 13 deaths have occurred as a result of the faulty switches.
G.M. settled the lawsuit with the Melton family, but it is now facing a class-action lawsuit which consists of all owners of vehicles included in the recall. The research into the faulty part conducted by Hood will likely also play a role in that lawsuit.