The Madison County Record Feb. 3, 2015, 12:58pm

Melanie Austin and 22 other General Motors customers have filed a lawsuit against the company, claiming its defective engine and key switch led them to sustain injuries in numerous collisions.

In their complaint, the plaintiffs claim various GM vehicles include an ignition switch that can turn from the run position to the off position while the vehicle is running.

"When the key turns in this manner, the engine and power steering shut off, and the braking power and function are greatly reduced, often resulting in a loss of control and a collision," according to the suit filed Jan. 20 in St. Clair County Circuit Court.

Due to a low position of the ignition switch on the vehicles' steering columns, drivers can easily inadvertently bump the key and turn the car from running to off, the complaint says.

The plaintiffs claim GM was aware of the defects as early as 2001 when it began developmental testing of the 2003 Saturn Ion, but elected to do nothing to correct the problem. In fact, the suit alleges, GM installed the key system in the 2003 Saturn Ion and in several other GM models.

On Oct. 29, 2004, Gary Altman, GM's program-engineering manager for the Cobalt, test drove a 2005 Cobalt with a standard key and key fob. During the test drive, Altman's knee bumped the key and the engine turned off, causing the vehicle to stall, the complaint says.

He reported the incident to GM, the plaintiffs claim, noting that Altman's report led GM to launch an investigation into the issue and look for ways to solve the problem.

On Feb. 18, 2005, GM engineers determined the only definite solution was to change the low mount to a high mount lock module, but the company rejected the suggestion because it would have been too costly to implement, the complaint says.

The company, according to the plaintiffs, also rejected other, less-expensive proposals and instead sent a bulletin to dealers that recommended they advise customers of the potential dangers associated with the key module and to take steps, such as removing unessential items from their key chains, to prevent it.

"Rather than disclosing this serious safety problem that uniformly affected many models of GM vehicles, GM concealed and obscured the problems, electing to wait until customers brought their cars to a dealership after an engine-stalling incident," the suit alleges. "GM offered its own dealers only an incomplete, incorrect and insufficient description of the defects and the manner in which to actually remedy them."

Following numerous customer complaints in 2005, GM again opened an investigation in an attempt to find possible solutions to the problem, the complaint says. They decided to redesign the key, but failed to follow through on its decision and did nothing in response to the complaints, according to the complaint.

In their complaint, the plaintiffs mention numerous accidents that allegedly occurred as the result of the defect, including some fatal collisions. Although GM knew of the collisions, the plaintiffs claim the company continued to sell the vehicles for full price and to conceal the defects.

It was not until 2014 that the company announced a recall for the Cobalt and G5 vehicles, the complaint says.

The plaintiffs allege strict products liability, negligence, fraudulent misrepresentation, fraudulent concealment, breach of implied warranty and breach of express warranty against the company.

They each seek a judgment of more than $250,000, plus costs and other relief the court deems just.

John J. Driscoll and Christopher J. Quinn of The Driscoll Firm in St. Louis will be representing them.

St. Clair County Circuit Court case number: 15-L-26.

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