Kristin Hopkins spent more than two months in a hospital following a near-fatal crash that left her crushed and trapped upside down in her car for nearly a week.
She was back at her Highlands Ranch home learning to use her new prosthetics — her legs had been amputated at the knee — when she received a recall notice for her 2009 Chevy Malibu.
Hopkins had one thought as she read the letter from General Motors.
“That explains a lot,” she said.
On Tuesday, Hopkins filed a lawsuit against the automaker in federal court claiming that her car’s electronic stability control “failed to engage” and the car’s electronic power steering “gave out” on Red Hill Pass on April 27, 2014. Because of these malfunctions, the suit states that Hopkins, 45, was “deprived of these crash avoidance systems at the moment she needed them most.”
Additionally, the lawsuit claims that based on documents GM provided the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, the company first learned of the problem with the electronic stability control on the Malibu in 2008 — six years before Hopkins’ accident.
The dramatic crash, in which Hopkins careened off U.S. 285 near Fairplay and tumbled 140 feet down an embankment into an aspen grove, and her improbable survival made national headlines. She spoke to The Denver Post about her 18 months of recovery and her decision to take on the country’s largest automaker.
“My life is completely changed because of all this,” said Hopkins, who hasn’t been able to work since the crash. “Could I have changed what happened? No. Could (GM) have changed what happened? Yes.”
GM on Tuesday didn’t specifically comment on the lawsuit’s claims but in a statement said it would “investigate this matter and work to understand what happened and why.”
The automaker has been embroiled in high-profile legal trouble over vehicle recalls since last year, when defective ignition switches were blamed for at least 169 deaths. Evidence emerged in that case that GM knew about the problem for a decade before finally issuing a recall.
The scandal could end up costing the company more than $5.3 billion in fines and victim compensation.
Hopkins’ attorney, Kurt Zaner, said his client’s case is “more of the same” from GM.
He and Hopkins hope the lawsuit will prod Chevy customers with recall notices on their kitchen tables to get the necessary repairs done. But more important, Zaner said, they hope it will prompt GM and other carmakers to be more transparent about potential vehicle defects and quicker about publicizing them.
“These are real lives being affected by corporate decisions,” he said. “Maybe this teaches GM a lesson — don’t wait so long to issue a recall.”
Zaner said the problems with his client’s Malibu were encompassed in two recall notices from GM — both of which were issued after her crash.
The first, in July 2014, stated that because of a problem with the car’s body control module, “traction control, electronic stability control and panic braking assist features … may be disabled.”
Then just last month, Hopkins received a notice stating that there was a possibility the electronic power steering could fail.
“The fact that the power steering recall came out just a few weeks ago leads you to ask, ‘What else is wrong with this car?’ ” Zaner said.
The suit states that a former Chrysler engineer hired by Zaner determined that the data on the Malibu’s “black box” definitively linked the malfunctions described in the notifications to the crash.
Zaner said his client’s toxicology report was clean.
The data from the Malibu’s computers indicated Hopkins was driving 63 mph at the time she left the road, Zaner said. The rural pass has posted speed limits that vary between 55 mph and 65 mph.
Road conditions could have been wet or slushy at the time of the accident, Zaner said, but it’s not known what time of day or night Hopkins lost control of her car.
In the meantime, Hopkins continues to make strides.
While she was stuck in her car, she had no food or water for six days and endured temperatures well below freezing. Her feet were crushed beyond repair and her ribs were fractured.
“I could see my ankles — they were purple and they felt weird,” Hopkins said.
She managed to scrawl help messages on a red-and-white umbrella, which she stuck out the window of the Malibu. She tried eating a packet of instant oatmeal.
“My first thought was, ‘Oh, my God, I have to get my kids,'” Hopkins said. “I was also thinking that someone will find me.”
Hopkins is three inches taller now as a result of her prosthetic legs and has started taking CrossFit classes. She hikes, drives a Ford Focus (“a conscious decision” to avoid Chevy) but has yet to resume running.
She’s confident that skill will return soon.
“Don’t tell me I can’t do something,” Hopkins said. “Because I will prove you wrong.”
Hopkins said she’s doing her best to spend time with her four kids, who live with her ex-husband, while she goes through rehab.
“With my kids, it has been very difficult,” she said. “One day you have a mom, and the next day you have a mom with no legs. You cry yourself to sleep.”