A Cobb County judge is making national headlines by permitting the family of a deceased woman to reopen their case against General Motors. As noted in prior posts, the parents of Brooke Melton, who died after her GM Chevrolet ignition switch failed, sought to unwind the settlement previously reached with the auto giant. The deceased woman’s case is very significant in that it helped reveal the faulty ignition defect which led to the largest automotive recall in the country’s history. The judge has now determined that the Melton family can begin discovery related to potential fraud by the company is covering up what they might have known about the defect and present material evidence that has come to light since the settlement was reached.
In the latest hearing, GM tried to convince the court that the settlement it had reached with the family should stand and that the case should not be permitted to be reopened. The lawyer for the automaker argued that if the Melton’s settlement could be reopened, there would be no finality in the process and parties would not be able to rely on settlements reached as being final. But the court disagreed and is allowing the family to reopen the case in what is essentially a new case, that will include the information that has come to light since the case was settled. The Melton family is now able to go forward to pursue in discovery what GM knew about the ignition switch defects prior to their daughter’s death.
Perhaps other settled cases that involved the ignition switch may reopen for further litigation. The ability to move forward in other similar cases is in part going to be determined by the New York district court on an issue related to the company’s bankruptcy and its impact on the litigation landscape. The court in New York is the venue for about 100 cases involving GM recalled ignition switch vehicles.
Reopening of a prior settlement is not a common occurrence. Courts have the ability to reopen cases under limited circumstances, which includes in general new and material evidence. GM may have withheld its knowledge of the allegedly fatal defect in the ignition switch and that is the what the Melton family wants to determine. If company executives knew about problems with the switch and did not inform the public or recall vehicles to correct the issue, there could be major awards to victims and their families.
The allegation with regard to this appears to include one relating to a GM engineer who may have authorized a change in the ignition switch several years ago, but allowed the part number to remain the same which is contrary to company policy. The engineer had testified previously that he was not aware of a change in the switch; he may have committed perjury on this issue. Millions of vehicles have now been recalled by GM for various issues. Although company management has appeared before Congress, the injury and wrongful death cases that are in the court system now are likely to change with allegations of cover-ups and fraud. We will keep you posted on the progress of the Cobb County case.
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