Pisanchyn Law Firm Fights for Justice Against GM
By TERRIE MORGAN-BESECKER
Published: April 28, 2016
Joan Occulto always suspected a mechanical problem caused the 2007 car crash that killed her grandson, but no one believed her.
Joan Occulto holds a box containing her grandson’s ashes at her home in Dunmore. Louis McHale-Occulto was killed in a vehicle accident on September 9th 2007, on Interstate 81 northbound in McAdoo. Butch Comegys / Staff Photographer Story by Terrie
The pain of losing Louis McHale, 30, was torture enough for the Dunmore grandmother. He left behind three young sons.
Her pain worsened from the innuendoes and rumors that the crash was her grandson’s fault.
It took nearly eight years, but Mrs. Occulto, 75, said her grandson finally is vindicated as GM agreed Tuesday to approve a claim she and her husband, Frank, 83, filed. Their claim alleged a faulty ignition switch, that unexpectedly shut off his car, impaired the steering and forced him to lose control, caused the crash.
The settlement, negotiated by attorney Michael Pisanchyn of Scranton, comes from a fund GM set up to compensate victims of the defective switch. Terms of the settlement are confidential, but public documents related to the claims process reveal family members will be paid at least $1 million in damages, plus $300,000 for each dependent. That equates to at least $1.9 million for Mr. McHale’s family.
While the money certainly will help the family, it’s not what motivated Mrs. Occulto to pursue the case.
“The money means nothing to me. It can’t bring my grandson back,” she said. “I wanted to clear his name. … It was General Motors’ fault. They took my grandson away from his sons.”
The settlement is among at least three GM reached involving Lackawanna County families in the past two years. In October 2014, GM settled a case filed by Leo and Mary Theresa Ruddy, whose daughter, Kelly Erin Ruddy, was killed in 2010. In June 2105, it settled a case filed by Richard and Laura Miller over the 2014 death of their son, James Miller. Both of those lawsuits were filed by attorney Larry Moran of Lenahan and Dempsey in Scranton.
The claims were among more than 4,000 filed that sought compensation from a special fund GM set up in June 2014 to compensate victims. The fund paid out $594.5 million for 399 claims, including 124 deaths, according to a final report issued in December by attorney Kenneth Feinberg, who administered the fund.
GM acknowledged it knew about problems with the ignition switches in several of its models for at least a decade before it began recalling the vehicles in February 2014.
James Cain, a spokesman for GM, said the company’s settlement of cases does not mean it admits that that the ignition switch failed or was the cause of a particular crash. He noted that, in deciding whether to approve a claim, Mr. Feinberg did not undertake any engineering analysis or consider legal defenses GM had in the cases, including statute of limitations and contributory negligence of the drivers.
“We faced the ignition switch issue with integrity, dignity and clear determination to do the right thing both in the short and long term,” Mr. Cain said in an email Thursday.
In Mr. McHale’s case, he was killed and his passenger, Audrey Evans of Scranton, was injured after he lost control of his 2003 Saturn Ion on Interstate 81 in Kline Twp. on Sept. 9, 2007. The car struck a rock embankment and rolled twice, ejecting both occupants. Mr. McHale left behind three sons, ages 6, 8 and 11 at the time of his death.
Mrs. Occulto said she contacted several law firms shortly after the crash and asked them to look into the case, but all declined. She gave up hope of ever proving a mechanical failure was to blame. Then she got a recall notice at her Elm Street home in July 2014 regarding the ignition switch.
“Then I knew something was wrong with the car,” she said.
Even with the new information, Mrs. Occulto said she still had trouble finding an attorney to take the case.
Mr. Pisanchyn said the case presented significant challenges, including that the statute of limitations to sue had expired years ago. Mr. McHale’s vehicle also was no longer available, so it would be hard to prove the ignition switch caused the crash. He said he decided to take the case because he strongly believed GM should be held accountable.
“GM clearly knew there was a problem with the ignition switch. They were getting reports of deaths quite often,” he said. “It came down to they put corporate profits over peoples’ lives.”
Mr. Pisanchyn said GM initially rejected Mrs. Occulto’s claim. It reconsidered the decision after attorney Douglas Yazinski consulted with auto safety experts and obtained photos police took of Mr. McHale’s car that showed the airbags did not deploy — a key indicator that the ignition was in the “off” position when the crash occurred.
“The pictures really made a difference in our case. It put GM’s feet to the fire,” Mr. Pisanchyn said.
Mrs. Occulto said she’s thankful the case is resolved. For years, she and her great-grandchildren dealt with rumors about the crash. It’s a relief to have the truth out, she said, but she can’t help but feel bitter toward GM.
“For a 35-cent part, my grandson died,” she said.