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GM, Delphi depositions on ignitions to start soon

Melissa Burden
The Detroit News

Former and current top-ranking General Motors Co. executives and Delphi Automotive employees will be deposed beginning this spring in lawsuits related to the ignition switch defect linked to at least 67 deaths. And some new documents gathered by lawyers suing GM point to a coverup by the automaker, two lawyers said Monday.

Lance Cooper, a Marietta, Georgia, attorney, said depositions will begin in May and continue through the end of 2015. Cooper has represented Ken and Beth Melton, whose daughter Brooke, 29, died in a 2010 crash in a since-recalled Chevrolet Cobalt. He declined to say who would be deposed in state court and federal multi-district litigation cases involving personal injury and wrongful death allegations that have been consolidated.

Cooper said internal communications between GM employees and its internal lawyers and outside law firms were collected during the Melton case that can be used in future cases. He said sealed documents that are not being released now indicate GM lawyers and others knew of the safety problem with the switches well before the automaker, in February 2014, began recalling Cobalts and other cars with the defective switch.

Cooper said information in the emails contradicts the conclusion of the internal GM investigation, led by former U.S. Attorney Anton Valukas, that found a “pattern of incompetence and neglect” by GM in waiting more than a decade to recall cars.

“Mr. Valukas chalked it up to incompetence, and we believe the documents and the testimony that will come out, it wasn’t incompetence, it was a coverup,” Cooper said.

Cooper hopes the upcoming depositions will help answer what former General Counsel Michael Millikin knew about the ignition switch issue before the recall.

GM spokesman Jim Cain declined to comment Monday.

GM ultimately fired 15 employees and dramatically changed its safety practices and established a victim compensation fund for those injured or for families with loved ones who died in crashes tied to the defect.

The Meltons agreed to a confidential settlement last week, dropping their lawsuit. The settlement includes an undisclosed payout from GM through its ignition switch victims compensation fund, the $5 million original award from a September 2013 settlement with GM and an undisclosed amount from a Chevrolet dealership, Cooper told reporters Monday in a call.

Cooper said compensation fund administrator Kenneth Feinberg approached him and the Meltons about applying for the program earlier this year, and ultimately GM did not disagree with Feinberg’s conclusion that her accident and death was caused by the ignition switch defect.

Last week, GM confirmed the settlement with the Meltons but would not discuss details.

The Meltons opted to file a second lawsuit and tried to return the $5 million settlement money to GM in order to uncover the truth and to have GM confirm that their daughter’s accident and death were caused by the ignition switch defect. Cooper said those goals were met.

The second Melton lawsuit claimed the automaker fraudulently concealed evidence in its first trial and that a corporate representative committed perjury in the original case. Brooke Melton’s crash at first was attributed to her losing control of her Cobalt on a rainy night. But investigators hired by Cooper and the Meltons found the vehicle’s ignition switch had moved the key from the “run” to the “accessory” or “off” position, shutting off the engine and disabling power steering and braking, lights and air bags.

The case and depositions in the first lawsuit were impetus for GM recalling 2.59 million older Cobalts, Saturn Ions and other small cars for faulty ignition switches. GM also paid a $35 million civil fine to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, and GM CEO Mary Barra was called to testify before Congress.

The first case in the multi-district litigation group is set for trial in January.

Cooper said the Meltons were “emotionally exhausted.” They did not participate in Monday’s call and have asked for privacy, Cooper said.

Jere Beasley, an Alabama attorney who is working with Cooper on GM cases including the Melton case, said internal documents dating back to the early 2000s turned over by Delphi make “a very strong fraud case against General Motors” and prove “General Motors was involved in a coverup.”

“General Motors will never try a lawsuit where the defective ignition switch is involved, in my opinion,” Beasley told reporters.

He said he expects cases in the mult-district litigation ultimately will be settled by GM.