By Robert F. Danzi
In July 2005, 16-year-old Amber Marie Rose died when the air bags in her brand new Chevrolet Cobalt failed to deploy during a crash. The reason for the failure: the car’s ignition switch had slipped into the “accessory” position, effectively deactivating the vehicle’s air bags and anti-lock brakes, and shutting off the engine. Compounding the tragedy, the makers of the Chevy Cobalt had known about the problem for years.
It’s a tale as tragic as it is familiar: A company faced with the choice between private profit and public safety decides to prioritize its balance sheet over the lives of its customers. This time the offending company is General Motors, which ignored a known defect in thousands of cars, resulting in at least 13 deaths. It is a hard-earned lesson in the need for tougher safety regulation, but it is also a reminder of the critical role played by the civil justice system.
GM’s engineers first noticed that some of their vehicles had defective ignition switches as early as 2001, but a recall was not issued for more than another decade. The reason? Management decided that fixing the ignition switch was too expensive at 90 cents per car.
That unconscionable decision might still be secret today had Amber Marie’s parents not decided to take GM to court. The family’s lawyer hired an independent engineer to investigate what went wrong. He discovered the cover-up when he found that GM had begun to secretly switch out the faulty ignition system in 2005, without telling current cars owners that their vehicles contained a potentially deadly flaw.
GM had failed its customers, badly, and federal safety regulators had been unable or unwilling to stop the company. But the lawsuit brought the scandal to light. Damning headlines soon piled up and the company finally ordered the recall of the Chevy Cobalt and more than 2 million other motor vehicles early this year. General Motors now faces a congressional investigation and a federal criminal probe.
If it were not for the hard work of the trial lawyers representing the victims of GM’s greed, there’s no telling when, if ever, this deadly problem would have been fixed. Politicians and pundits like to score points by attacking trial lawyers and the civil justice system, proposing laws that would make it harder for victims of corporate greed to tell their story in front of a jury of their peers.
The fact is, it is often lawsuits that hold companies like GM accountable – especially when regulators fail to keep consumers safe. Many of the safety features of modern driving that we take for granted – including air bags and seat belts – are the result of lawsuits from crash victims and their families.
The next time you hear a politician talking about the need to rein in lawsuits, remember that it is victims like Amber Rose Marie who stand to lose.
Robert F. Danzi is president of the New York State Trial Lawyers Association.