General Motors knew in 2004, a decade before it issued a recall, that its Chevrolet Cobalt had an ignition switch that could inadvertently shut off the engine while driving, according to depositions in a civil lawsuit against GM. The stall also would cut off the driver's power steering and brakes, as well as safety systems such as airbags and anti-lock brakes.
At least one GM engineer had the problem while testing the new car, which went on sale in 2004 as a 2005 model, say documents obtained by USA TODAY from the lawsuit over a crash that killed pediatric nurse Brooke Melton. She died in 2010, on her 29th birthday, in the Cobalt she bought new in 2005.
GM created a snap-on key cover to try to help with the ignition issue and advised dealers in a 2005 technical service bulletin to install the part if owners complained. Melton's car never got one, and GM did not recall the cars for a mandatory fix until last week.
GM settled the lawsuit by her estate; the terms are confidential and GM said it would not comment because a dealer lawsuit continues. Melton had taken her car into the dealer for ignition switch problems and just picked it up the day before her fatal crash, Cooper says. She bought her 2005 Cobalt new in August of 2005.
In the recall announced last Thursday, GM said it knows of at least six deaths in five Cobalt crashes in which airbags failed to deploy as a result of switch failure. It said the switch mechanisms did not meet its specifications and too easily could pop out of the "run" position — because of jarring or a heavy key chain — into "accessory" or "off," deactivating the airbags.
GM will replace the switch in 778,619 of its 2005-2007 Chevrolet Cobalts and mechanically similar 2007 Pontiac G5 compact cars in the U.S., Canada and Mexico. It said it knows of a total of 22 related crashes, but GM spokesman Adam Adler said the company had no further details or comment beyond the original recall announcement.
Even though GM acknowledged the problem in the 2005 technical service bulletin — a type of routine notice from automakers to dealers about possible problems and fixes — the bulletin did not tell dealers to put the new key cover on the keys of new Cobalts before they were sold. The bulletin also did not tell dealers to alert buyers of the possibility that the key might move out of place and the engine might stall.
The modification to the key listed in the bulletins was an "improvement, it was not a fix to the issue," Gary Altman, program engineering manager for Cobalt during its development, said in a deposition last June.
Even so, he said, "I think that the insert should have been put into the cars, yes."
In Melton's crash, she was driving on a rainy night in Paulding County, Ga. -- about 30 miles from Atlanta -- wearing her safety belt and going 58 mph on a two-lane state route 92 on her way to her boyfriend's house, according to the lawyer for her estate, Lance Cooper, a police report and data from the car's "black box" that records the last three seconds before the crash.
When the ignition failed, she lost control, skidded and was hit on the passenger side by another car.
GM wouldn't say whether Melton is among the six fatalities cited in the recall. The circumstances of her crash were different from those GM described, which all were front-impact accidents.
Although Cooper said Melton was observing the speed limit, police said she was "traveling too fast for the roadway conditions." People in the car that hit her were injured and sued Melton's estate. Her parents contacted Cooper to help.
He had a "black box dump" done, and that is when it was discovered that the ignition key had come out of the "run" position and shut off the engine at the time of the crash. Cooper argues that is what caused Melton to lose control.
Contributing: Paul Overberg