There is an interesting case out of Texas where Candice Anderson is suing General Motors over its defective ignition switches. Anderson, however, has more than the usual damages. She is a convicted felon in the death of her fiancé, Mikale Erickson, in November 2004 when she lost control of her 2004 Saturn Ion in Canton, Texas. While she was not drunk or on drugs, the police could not find a reason for the crash so prosecutors charged her with manslaughter. To avoid a longer sentence, she pleaded guilty and was sentenced to five years probation as a felon. Later, however, she learned that her case was on GM’s list of accidents caused by their defective cars – no one bothered to tell her.
Erickson, the father of two small children, was killed immediately in the crash. Anderson was thrown through the windshield and barely survived. The airbags never deployed — one of the defects that I discussed in an earlier column. Police tested her for alcohol and drugs. She cleared both tests with only a small trace of an anti-anxiety medicine. There were no skid marks or evidence of reckless driving. Nevertheless, faced with no evidence other than the accident, they decided to charge her while she was recovering from her injuries. Faced with the threat of multiple charges and long sentences, she agreed to plead guilty to criminal negligent homicide.
It was Erickson’s mother who learned that her son’s case was one of the 13 fatal crashes blamed on the faulty ignition switches. The defect, as discussed earlier, cut off power, locks the steering, kills the brakes, and disables the airbag.
What is particularly disturbing is that GM knew of the defect and waited ten years, but officials will not only likely escape any criminal charges (unlike Anderson) but have moved to block any liability under a claim of bankruptcy protections.
However, too little attention has been directed at the police and prosecutors in this case. Here you have an accident with no evidence of drug or alcohol influence. No skid marks. However, regardless, she was pressured into a plea. In today’s world with ever-expanding sentencing laws and mandatory minimums, there is enormous pressure to accept a plea to avoid a long prison stint, even if you are innocent. When defendants are later cleared, there is rarely any effort in the media to demand answers from prosecutors or police.
In the end, neither GM nor the prosecutors are likely to be held fully accountable for the case. This case makes citizens look like little more than fodder in both the consumer protection and the criminal justice systems.