A young woman journeys back from GM car crash

By Chris Mondics

The Philadelphia Inquirer (MCT)

Published: Friday, April 25 2014 7:46 a.m. MDT

“What they should have done is said, ‘Park your car on the side of the road.’ ”

Gilbert, who earned a criminal justice degree in 2009 from Shippensburg University, is likely one of hundreds, if not thousands, of motorists with claims against GM and Delphi Automotive PLC, maker of the ignition switch.

All signs point toward a legal and political maelstrom that could take years to resolve.

The problem for GM is that it had known about the faulty ignitions for nearly a decade but failed to alert the public until February, when it recalled some 2.6 million cars.

So far, GM said 13 deaths had been linked to the ignition switches, a number likely to mount. In addition to individual claims such as Gilbert’s, lawsuits seeing class-action status have been filed in Texas, California, and New York.

GM has hired lawyer Kenneth Feinberg, who administered victims compensation funds after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the BP gulf oil spill, and the Pennsylvania State University sexual molestation cases, to explore the extent of General Motors’ liability and ways victims might be compensated.

The issue has taken on a political dimension, as well.

In Washington, House and Senate panels grilled new GM Chief Executive Mary T. Barra in separate hearings earlier this month, with lawmakers accusing the company of a cover-up and incompetence. At the same time, the U.S. attorney’s office in Manhattan launched a criminal probe and is looking at whether GM officials concealed problems in the Cobalt and other cars from federal regulators.

If there is a criminal case to be made, it likely would center on the responsibility General Motors had to report safety defects to federal regulators, said Ron Sarachan, co-chair of the white-collar defense group at Drinker Biddle & Reath LLP and former chief of major crimes at the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Philadelphia. But showing that the people at GM who were aware of the defect also had a responsibility to report it can be difficult, Sarachan said.

“That is a challenge for a prosecutor in any white-collar case,” he said. “It is possible that the people who have knowledge of the defect are not even in communication with the government. It really comes down to what sort of internal reporting there was at GM.”

Jacqueline Gilbert had left a party in Chambersburg in the early-morning hours to return to her apartment in Shippensburg. She had traveled barely a mile and a half on Route 11 north before her car went off the road.

She has no memory of the crash, which occurred around 4:15 a.m. in fog, according to the police accident report. There is no evidence another vehicle was involved, nor is there evidence alcohol played any role.

Winkler says before Gilbert drove off, she texted a friend to say she was leaving but failed to press the send button on her cellphone. The message remained on her screen. As a result, state troopers who recovered the phone but who never interviewed Gilbert listed texting as a cause of the crash in their preliminary report, a determination that Winkler says is wrong and contradicted by what Gilbert can recall of that night.

Donna Gilbert said she practically moved into the hospital in Hershey, sleeping in chairs and on a sofa in a visitors’ section.

When her daughter finally awoke from the coma, Donna Gilbert said, she held her daughter’s hand and said, “Hi, baby. It’s Mommy.”

Her daughter then mouthed, “My Mommy.”

Both women describe a long, excruciating rehabilitation. After three and a half weeks at Hershey, Gilbert spent more than three weeks at Magee Rehabilitation Hospital in Philadelphia, where she received physical and speech therapy and other treatments.

Donna Gilbert broke away from her city job twice each day to join her daughter at Magee, and went straight to the hospital after work, where she stayed until about 10 p.m., until her daughter had gone to sleep.

The process has been frustrating for both. Donna Gilbert said her daughter had always had plenty of drive and independence. Suddenly finding herself unable to do simple things caused great frustration and, on occasion, anger.

“It was emotionally difficult for both of us,” Donna Gilbert said. “She was so independent (before the accident).”

“I just nodded my head and took it,” she said of her daughter’s bursts of anger.

For her part, Jacqueline Gilbert has rejoined her National Guard unit at Johnstown, Pa., training with it at regular intervals. She works part-time at Magee and does volunteer work.

Pretty and alert, Jacqueline Gilbert was unwaveringly upbeat in an interview. But she is well aware of the tough road she has had to travel.

“There was no giving up,” she said of her recovery. “I had worked too hard in college not to be able to use that, and I had worked too hard as a soldier not to be able to go back to that.”

©2014 The Philadelphia Inquirer. Visit The Philadelphia Inquirer at www.philly.com Distributed by MCT Information Services

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