Atlanta-based journalist

No Accident: Inside GM’s deadly ignition switch scandal

No Accident: Inside GM’s deadly ignition switch scandal

Marietta attorney Lance Cooper was looking for answers behind a single crash. What he found led to a recall of 30 million vehicles.

Atlanta / 2016

For Brooke Melton, the day began with a voicemail from her father, wishing her a happy 29th birthday. She drove to her shift as a nurse at West Atlanta Pediatrics. After work she climbed into her white 2005 Chevy Cobalt and threw her bag onto the passenger seat. A cautious driver—she’d never once gotten a speeding ticket and always wore her seatbelt—Brooke was headed to her boyfriend’s place to celebrate over a birthday dinner.

Darkness had already descended when Brooke pulled onto Hiram Acworth Highway. Driving north on the lonesome two-lane road, past the strip malls and convenience stores, she came to a half-mile downhill straightaway, a stretch of asphalt bordered by Georgia pines and utility poles. Where the road leveled, rainwater pooled on the blacktop. Suddenly Brooke lost control of the Cobalt, hydroplaning across the center line. An oncoming Ford Focus slammed into Brooke’s rear passenger side, violently reversing the car’s counterclockwise rotation. The Cobalt spun off the road, over the shoulder, and 15 feet down into the surging waters of Picketts Mill Creek. It was just before 7:30 p.m.

Nineteen minutes later, after a passerby called 911, the first responders arrived on the scene and pulled Brooke from her half-submerged vehicle. Roughly nine minutes after they placed her gurney in an ambulance, she arrived at WellStar Paulding Hospital in Hiram, six miles from the crash site. Doctors put her on a ventilator, but the prognosis was grim. She was transferred to the better-equipped WellStar Kennestone Hospital in Marietta, 16 miles away.

Around 10 p.m., the phone rang at her parents’ home in Kennesaw. The call went to voicemail. Brooke’s mother got out of bed and hit play: It was the hospital, requesting she come immediately. A frantic call back and finally the news: Blunt force trauma from the crash had broken Brooke’s neck. I’m sorry, the doctor said. We couldn’t save her. Brooke was the oldest daughter of Beth and Ken Melton. Her parents gave permission for her organs to be donated. It’s what she would have wanted.

On the drive to the hospital, Ken prayed the doctors were wrong. But no. Inside the ICU, he kissed his daughter’s cold forehead and made a vow: that her death would not be in vain. Even then, wrestling with the first waves of a grief that would consume him, he suspected the fault lay not with Brooke but with her car.

In the months that followed, Beth and Ken both sought refuge in different ways: Beth through her faith and therapy, Ken through poring over every detail of the accident and the days leading up to it. A week before she was killed, Brooke had called him to say something strange was going on with her car.  Sometimes it would simply shut off while she was driving it, and she’d have to pull over to the side and restart it. Get it serviced, Ken told her. The weekend before the accident, she dropped off the car at Thornton Chevrolet in Lithia Springs. The mechanic cleaned her fuel injectors, changed her oil, replaced her fuel filter. All fixed, she later told Ken over the phone.

Now Ken spent evenings scrolling through online discussion boards. Other drivers had reported problems with the Cobalt—problems similar to the one Brooke had complained about. On one forum, a father posted that he refused to let his daughter drive her Cobalt after it stalled. Ken even found testimonials from people like him, family members who had lost a loved one in a crash involving a Cobalt. With each new revelation, he grew more angry. His behavior worried Beth, who believed the accident simply happened. He’d call her over to share new bits of information, compounding her own grief. She pleaded with him to stop. Ken wanted General Motors, the manufacturer of the Cobalt, to examine the wreckage. It took months, but finally GM scheduled an inspection for February 2011, almost a year after Brooke’s death. Ken wasn’t the only party interested in the findings; a lawyer for the driver of the Focus wanted to know, too. Ken and Beth realized they needed their own attorney. Their insurance adjuster gave them a name—Lance Cooper.


Max Blau