Mother wonders if son's deadly crash in 2009 was connected to Cobalt issues
General Motors' massive recall of the Chevrolet Cobalt and other compact cars is stirring up questions and memories for Shannon Wooten.
On Oct. 11, 2009, her 20-year-old son, Joshua, was driving his 2006 Cobalt on Tom Austin Highway in Springfield.
It was midday and sunny, and Joshua Wooten, father of twin toddlers, was going to his job as a caretaker for an elderly man in town. Shortly after 2:30 p.m,, police say, his car crossed over the center lane of the highway, swiping another car. That impact knocked his car directly into the path of an oncoming vehicle, and he collided head-on with a Pontiac van. The crash caused eight injuries and one fatality: Joshua Wooten.
It would take time, investigation and legal counsel to ultimately prove if his death was linked to the issues now coming to light about GM's recall. But for Shannon Wooten, the possibility that the company could have hidden information about a car involved in her son's death is extremely painful.
"Joshua was well-known in this little town and he was really loved," said Shannon Wooten, of Adams in Robertson County. "My grandbabies don't have their daddy to come home to, and it kills me."
Wooten says that when she looked at her son's wrecked Cobalt, the key was still in the ignition. It was stuck so badly that she couldn't remove it.
Late last month, General Motors issued a recall affecting 1.6 million cars worldwide. The recall encompasses several models, including the 2006 Chevrolet Cobalt.
In the recall notice, GM said it needed to "correct a condition with the ignition switch that may allow the key to unintentionally move or switch to the 'accessory' or 'off' position, turning off the engine and most of the electrical components on the vehicle."
When the key moves to the accessory position while in motion, the driver may feel as if he or she does not have control of the car.
Nationwide, the problem has been linked to 31 confirmed accidents and 12 confirmed deaths. But experts say other cases may emerge as word of the problem spreads.
Before her son's accident, Shannon Wooten tried to get an ignition issue fixed on their Cobalt.
On Jan. 20, 2009, she took the Cobalt to Payne Chevrolet in Springfield. The receipt for that transaction says, "Cust states the key won't come out of the ignition and now the battery is dead." Shannon Wooten paid Payne $393.85 for the work on the car. After the car was serviced, she said, the key still locked up, but did so less frequently.
Wooten says her family never received communication from GM about the ignition problem. In 2010, she received a note written by Scott Lawson, director of customer and relationship services for Chevrolet, regarding an issue with the fuel tank assembly. She received the letter in February 2010, more than a year after Joshua's crash.
"In some instances, rather than provide full disclosure to the public about a dangerous defect in their products, automakers have chosen to conceal the defect while secretly attempting to fix the defects when consumers bring their cars into dealers for other reasons," said Mark Chalos, a trial attorney at Nashville firm Lieff Cabraser Heimann & Bernstein.
"This practice is known as conducting a 'silent recall,' " Chalos said, adding, "We do not have any information at this point that GM engaged in this practice in connection with the ignition problem."
Silent recalls can save automakers money because issuing a full-blown safety recall is very expensive, Chalos said. "Conducting a safety recall can cost automakers millions or tens of millions of dollars. Unfortunately, there have been many instances in recent history where corporations have put profits over public safety."
GM acknowledged to federal officials that it had received notification of the ignition defect as early as 2001, but believed the problem had been resolved at that time.
This week, the federal government launched a criminal investigation into GM that will include a full review of how management handled information about defective cars.
"The chronology shows that the process employed to examine this phenomenon was not as robust as it should have been," GM North America President Alan Batey said in a prepared statement.
It appears that GM management took a calculated risk in deciding whether to recall the cars, said Gene Grabowski, executive vice president of crisis communications firm Levick. "I am sure that if GM was facing the same situation today, they would come to a different conclusion about issuing a recall."
At the time, GM was in crisis. The company lost market share and reported disappointing earnings for years before it declared bankruptcy in 2009.
GM's bankruptcy proceedings have complicated the process for families who may want to seek recourse now.
When GM declared bankruptcy, it effectively split into two companies: the pre-2009 GM, which was loaded with the company's bad debt, and the new GM, which emerged after bankruptcy. As part of the proceedings, GM's legal liabilities were wiped away for most pre-bankruptcy issues.
Despite that, some lawmakers have urged the company to create a fund to help compensate victims' families.
Those were not the only legal woes for GM. The Justice Department is investigating whether GM broke any laws with its slow response to the problems.
In addition, committees in the House and Senate want to know why the government's road safety watchdog, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, didn't take action sooner.
For its part, the NHTSA has demanded information from GM about when it knew of the ignition problem. The agency could fine GM up to $35 million for a delayed response.
The prospect of congressional hearings means more bad publicity for GM, which has said it's more focused on quality since emerging from bankruptcy protection.
Meanwhile, GM said this week that it has hired attorney Anton Valukas to investigate the company's actions before the recall. Valukas investigated the 2008 collapse of Lehman Brothers for a bankruptcy court. GM has promised an "unvarnished" investigation into the recall.
"While I deeply regret the circumstances that brought us to this point, I appreciate how today's GM has responded so far," said Mary Barra, who was named GM's CEO this year, in a statement on March 4. "We have much more work ahead of us and I'm confident we will do the right thing for our customers."
As for Shannon Wooten, who now helps care for Joshua's 5-year-old twins, the legal maneuvering offers little solace.
"This has brought so many feelings back up," she said. Ultimately, she hopes that GM provides some answers — for her family's peace of mind, yes, but mostly because she doesn't want another faulty car to contribute to the death of anyone else's child.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
Reach Shelley DuBois at 615-259-8241.