Trials & Litigation

Solo practitioner 'single-handedly set the stage' for massive GM recall


Although it had known for years about an issue with ignition switches in some General Motors vehicles, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration didn’t require a recall, lawyer Lance Cooper told Bloomberg.

It wasn’t until the Georgia solo practitioner dug for evidence against the automaker in a wrongful death case that the company recalled almost 800,000 vehicles last month, saying those cars could suddenly shut down if a driver jostled the ignition key or had it attached to a heavy ring of keys. Then Cooper wrote the NHTSA a letter, saying that a number of faulty vehicles hadn’t been recalled. Within days, GM had more than doubled the size of the recall, Bloomberg reports.

“He single-handedly set the stage for this recall,” auto-safety analyst Sean Kane said of Cooper.

Cooper, a 51-year-old Emory University law graduate who works in Marietta, on the outskirts of Atlanta, took on his first product liability case, involving a Ford Bronco II rollover accident, in the early 1990s. Since then, he has settled or tried to verdict some 50 cases, including nine for amounts in excess of $5 million, others in his office told the news agency.

In 2011, he began representing of the family of a 29-year-old Georgia pediatric nurse, Brooke Melton. She died in a 2010 accident after the 2005 Chevy Cobalt she was driving lost power and veered into oncoming traffic, striking another vehicle.

Cooper’s discovery in the Cobb County case began with a recall notice sent to Melton by GM concerning a power-steering issue. But information from the black box in the Cobalt showed power had been cut off to the entire car, not just the power steering. And other recall notices, sent to dealers in 2005 and 2006, suggested drivers could accidentally shut off their vehicles in mid-operation.

Depositions of 30 people followed, as well as a request for additional discovery from GM concerning replacement ignition switches and other lawsuits, Bloomberg recounts. When the company balked at turning over everything Cooper wanted, he got a court order compelling GM to provide the information and, when some was still not forthcoming, sought sanctions.

A confidential settlement in an undisclosed amount ended the Melton case in 2013, although a related claim against a dealership that serviced Melton’s vehicle is still ongoing.

Dennis Cathey, another Georgia lawyer who has known Cooper for years, credited his compatriot’s “focus on getting really into the internal workings of that corporation, getting into their engineering drawings, communications” for concluding the Melton case. “He has an innate sense of knowing that something could be wrong,” Cathey told the news agency, “and seeks to find out his proof to establish that wrong.”

The article doesn’t include any comment from GM, and the dealership that is still defending a Cooper case concerning Melton’s accident declined to comment.

See also:

ABAJournal.com: “Justice Department is reportedly probing GM ignition recall”

KLFY News 10: “Feds open criminal probe into General Motors over recall”

CNN Money: “GM recalls another 1.5 million vehicles”

Reuters: “GM recalls another 1.5 million vehicles, to take $300 million charge”

Updated at 12:55 p.m. to link to CNN Money and Reuters articles about recall.

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