In 2006, eighteen-year-old Natasha Weigel was killed (along with a close friend) when the Chevrolet Cobalt she was driving left the roadway and struck several trees. It was clear immediately that the vehicle’s air bags did not deploy as they were supposed to, but the subsequent police investigation suggested that the car’s ignition switch had shut the car’s power down just before the accident. This would have disabled both the air bags and essential functions like power steering and braking. Does this sound familiar? Similar defects in General Motors vehicles have tragically and needlessly resulted in at least 42 deaths and dozens of injuries to date, with clear details coming to light years after the fact in many cases.
As a New York Times story on this issue points out, both the automaker and federal regulators have been attacked throughout this past year for failing to catch this problem more than a decade after it was first discovered, but in the case of Natasha Weigel, state law has added insult to injury. The state of Wisconsin, where this accident took place, has legislation on the books that does not allow a plaintiff–even the family of someone killed due to gross negligence–to collect more than $350,000 for “loss of society.” It was for this reason and for “the extreme expense of litigating the case against General Motors” that a prominent Milwaukee law firm was “unwilling to become involved in this matter.”
Much like the Weigels, the Rademaker family, whose teenage daughter died alongside Natasha Weigel, could not obtain legal counsel in this case. This comes despite the fact that they were aware of “six ignition-related lawsuits that [General Motors] had settled out of court, including some under arraignments that barred public disclosures against them.” These families agree that if they had been able to find advocates, they “could have saved lives” by exposing this danger years earlier.
Experts cited in the Times article argue that “canary in a coalmine” cases like these are simply “harder to win” than those dealing with well-established negligence. Only when a suit was filed in Georgia, a state with few limits and caps on damages, did details of the ignition scandal become clear. GM even managed to settle this case, however, and insisted on confidentiality. It was a few months later that the company went public with the information and began to recall vehicles.
A lawyer the Weigel family initially retained to represent their daughter’s estate explained that a firm must “see a potential upside recovery well in excess of $1 million” due to the fact that cases against GM racked up an average of around $300,000 in legal fees in 2006. Because of this legislation in Wisconsin, the attorney explained in an interview, he has had to tell many parents “that the value of your dead child doesn’t warrant a case. It is a terrible thing to have to do.”
While legislators at the local, state, and national level continue to complain about jackpot justice, frivolous lawsuits, and multi-million-dollar verdicts, all-too-legitimate cases like the Weigels’ are falling by the wayside. Perhaps the next time you hear a proponent of tort reform arguing that we need to limit damages to keep businesses profitable, you’ll think of a family who has lost a loved one and now has to foot mountainous medical bills for which they are in no way responsible.
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