The Detroit News | by Melissa Burden
Pontiac's Alexis Wilson doesn’t remember the crash just after 4 a.m. July 6, 2008, as she was driving her best friend, Tamia Williams, back to Wilson’s Pontiac home.
But Wilson can’t forget the aftermath: Williams, who was five months pregnant, died and Wilson spent more than two years in prison after pleading no contest to four felonies related to the crash.
She acknowledges some responsibility, but wonders why the front air bags never went off. The 2008 Chevrolet Malibu she was driving was recently recalled by General Motors Co. for electronic power steering issues, but not air bags.
“I feel like I took responsibility for my actions with me going to prison and dealing with my friend dying,” she said in an interview this week. “I feel like that General Motors should take some responsibility in terms of what’s wrong with the car.”
On Thursday, Wilson is scheduled to attend a press conference with her attorney in Washington, D.C., ahead of the GM Senate hearing related to the ignition switch recall. Wilson and Williams’ mother, Carolyn Hawkins, plan to sue GM over what they believe is a defect in the Malibu. While the front air bags did not deploy, the side-curtain ones did.
GM spokesman Greg Martin had no comment on the possible litigation, but the pending case is just one example of what the automaker faces after recalling 29 million vehicles this year in wake of the ignition switch recall.
Devastating crash scene
Wilson, then 18, had been pulled over by Pontiac police around 2:30 that morning. She was driving her cousin’s rented Malibu without a license. Police let her drive away and Wilson’s dad, Wayne Wilson, ordered her home.
Just a few hundred yards from her home, where she was about to make the left turn from Bagley onto Fisher Avenue, police say Wilson lost control of the Malibu as it went right, off the road, over a curb and struck a pole, slicing it in two. A chain link fence was ripped from the ground at a golf course where the car came to rest.
Now, Wilson and Hawkins plan to sue GM over a vehicle defect as the company looks to defend itself from dozens of lawsuits alleging defective vehicles, mostly stemming from the separate ignition switch recall linked to 13 deaths.
The accident scene was horrific. The impact sent the engine out from the mangled and destroyed sedan and lay nearby. The steering wheel was found on the ground next to the driver’s door. Wilson was thrown from the Malibu and shattered her pelvis.
Her father and stepmother, Carol Clark, heard what sounded like an explosion, and they went to the corner to investigate. It was dark, but Clark remembers hearing Wilson cry for help and Wayne Wilson ran to his daughter.
Williams,17, was trapped in the front passenger seat and suffered critical head trauma. She died from her injuries after the crash.
Police estimated Wilson, 24, was traveling at least double the 35 mph speed limit, possibly as fast as 88 mph. She had marijuana in her system and admitted to police she had been drinking that night, though Wilson says she didn’t think she was intoxicated.
Wilson spent more than two years in prison over her best friend’s death and has wrestled with guilt that she lived and got to have a baby when Williams didn’t. Wilson missed time away from her son Jacarie, now 4, who was just 4 months old when she began her sentence in February 2010 at the Women’s Huron Valley Correctional Facility in Ypsilanti.
Wilson said she wants GM to take some responsibility for the accident and the impact it has had on her life, her family’s and the Williams family. Wilson and her dad say the mother-son bond is not what it should be.
“I shouldn’t have been driving, and I shouldn’t have been drinking. Or if I was speeding, I shouldn’t have been speeding,” Wilson said this week in an interview.
Wilson’s lawyer, Bob Hilliard of Texas, said unless the Malibu is added to vehicles eligible for GM’s compensation fund related to the ignition switch recall, he plans to file a lawsuit against GM on behalf of Wilson and Hawkins by the end of July.
In a phone interview Wednesday, Hilliard said he will sue over wrongful incarceration and death because Hilliard thinks Williams was killed because the front air bags failed to deploy. He said it doesn’t matter what caused the accident, nor if Wilson was speeding or didn’t have a license.
“This is an absolute cookie-cutter air bag deployment case,” he said. “In this type of impact, the air bags are to deploy.”
Hilliard said engineers he hired suspect there is an “algorithm and a wiring issue in the internal air bag electronics.” A police report indicates the most severe damage was to the front end and the passenger side door, consistent with impacting the pole.
18 air bag complaints
Besides suits linked to the ignition switch defect, GM is likely to face more lawsuits like the one expected to be filed by Wilson and Hawkins as people reconsider accidents.
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration lists 18 complaints about air bags in 2008 Malibus and 208 over steering, with two injuries. One complaint filed in May over an April 2009 fatal crash said the car veered to the right and crashed into a tree and the complainant’s son was killed instantly. Air bags did not go off.
It was Hawkins who called a lawyer recently about her daughter’s crash after seeing advertisements on television related to the GM recall. In September 2009 she wrote a letter to the sentencing judge in support of a lighter sentence for Wilson and Hawkins says she forgives Wilson.
Hilliard also is representing Candice Anderson, a Texas woman who was convicted of criminal homicide in a 2004 crash that killed her fiance and has recently sued GM. Anderson at 21 was driving a 2004 Saturn Ion “” a vehicle linked to GM’s ignition switch defect “” when it crashed with no air bag deployment. When the ignition switch moves out of the “run” position, vehicles can lose power steering and brakes and air bags can fail to deploy.
“What made me call (the law firm) was because of the air bags,” Hawkins, who now lives in Montgomery, Ala., said in a telephone interview.
'I just want my record clean'
Hawkins said her daughter attended Bethune alternative high school in Pontiac, was an outgoing person and aspired to go to college.
“My kids always wanted to be in the medical field,” Hawkins said. “She always talked about doing hair, cosmetology.”
Wilson said she finished her high school degree while in prison and has worked at a plant and the Salvation Army since her release in May 2012. She’s currently unemployed.
“You can’t find many jobs with a felony like that anyway, especially mine,” Wilson said. “They see manslaughter and they think something. ... I don’t know. It’s hard.”
Wilson was sentenced to two to 15 years after she pleaded no contest to operating while intoxicated causing death; homicide-manslaughter with motor vehicle; operating with a license suspended, revoked or denied causing death; and operating while intoxicated causing miscarriage or stillbirth. She recently came off parole.
Ultimately, Wilson hopes she’ll be able to get her record expunged. Hilliard said he will seek a pardon. She’d like to maybe become a nurse.
“I really don’t care about no money or anything,” she said. “I just want my record clean and for her family to forgive me and let everybody know it wasn’t my fault and could be something wrong with the car.”