Court Docs: GM Knew Of Cobalt Problem Before Fatal Crashes And RecallS

As General Motors recalls almost 780,000 Chevrolet Cobalts and Pontiac G5s over a faulty ignition switch blamed for engine shutdowns and six crash deaths, court statements have come to light that indicate a top engineer knew about the problem years before the recall was issued.

The issue plaguing the 2005-2007 Cobalt and G5 was this: A heavy key ring or rough roads can move the ignition switch out of the run position, cutting off the engine and electrical power and possibly halting the front airbags from deploying. GM says six fatalities occurred in five front-end crashes.

A technical service bulletin was issued in 2005 that instructed dealers to install a snap-on key cover if owners complained. The car wasn't recalled for a mandatory fix until last week.

But at least one GM engineer knew the 2005 technical service bulletin wasn't good enough, according to court documents obtained by a newspaper.

In a deposition obtained by USA Today in the lawsuit over the 2010 death of crash victim Brooke Melton, Gary Altman, the program engineering manager for the Cobalt, testified that the technical service bulletin was merely an "improvement, it was not a fix to the issue" to the problem. This deposition was given last June.

Even so, he said, "I think that the insert should have been put into the cars, yes."

USA Today also reports that at least one GM engineer encountered the ignition problem while testing the Cobalt in 2004.

GM won't say whether Melton was one of the six people they know died as a result of the Cobalt ignition issue. (To be fair, a GM spokesman also said some of the other fatal crashes involved alcohol or lack of a seatbelt.)

But as the AP reports, each were high-speed, off-the-road front end crashes on unpaved roads. But Melton died in similar circumstances after her ignition failed, lawyers for her family argued, causing her car to crash.

There's also this from the USA Today story:

Melton had taken her car into the dealer for ignition switch problems and just picked it up the day before her fatal crash, Lance Cooper, lawyer for Melton's estate, says. She bought her 2005 Cobalt new in August of 2005.

...[Cooper] 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.

Cooper, the attorney for Melton's family, has asked the NHTSA to open an investigation into the timing of the recall.

All of this prompts the question: How much of this could potentially have been avoided had GM issued the recall when their engineers apparently knew about the problem?

This post has been updated to clarify, via a GM spokesman, that the fatal crashes occurred on unpaved roads.