Man Hangs Himself After Killing Friend In Car Accident, Family Sues GM For Faulty Ignition

The family of a California man who hanged himself in prison last year, after learning that a faulty GM ignition may have played a part in his friend’s death, filed a lawsuit against the vehicle manufacturer.

New York Daily News reports that in 2003, Denis John Herndon was 36 years old when he lost control of his new, silver General Motors (GM) Saturn Ion and crashed it into Baker Pond, near the Stanfield Cutoff in Big Bear City, California. The accident killed his friend and passenger, 22-year-old David Aroian, who couldn’t get his seatbelt unjammed. Herndon was thrown to the back seat of his partially submerged car.

After the accident, Herndon told everyone, including the authorities, that he lost control of his car after it shut off by itself, which disabled the brakes, rendering him unable to stop the vehicle from plunging into the pond. Yet Herndon was intoxicated when the incident happened, and subsequently convicted of gross vehicular manslaughter. In 2012, he was sentenced to six years in prison.

While behind bars and suffering from seizures brought on by the accident, Herndon learned that GM sent out more than 5 million recall notices regarding vehicles shutting off unexpectedly. Herndon’s family received a recall notice for his Saturn Ion. However, he was mistaken when he thought the recall notice would get him out of prison.

In 2015, a little less than a year after learning about the recall notices, Herndon hanged himself. According to his fiancée, Catherine Corona, Herndon felt extreme guilt for what happened and couldn’t get the image of the accident out of his mind.

“He didn’t die in the crash, but it definitely killed him…..He had difficulty not replaying it over and over again because he thought there was something he could have done, thinking he could have had control over it when in fact he couldn’t.”

According to Herndon’s mother, Mary Ellen, although her son had a.12 alcohol level when the accident happened, he remembered that the steering wheel locked up and he couldn’t use the brakes.

“He kept saying, ‘I don’t know what happened, I just lost control of the car.’ The steering wheel did not respond. He couldn’t steer the car — and no brakes.”


Herndon’s guilt led him to write a note to his mother shortly before he killed himself. He still blamed himself for the accident, but couldn’t bear waiting it out in prison with recurring thoughts of the events that put him behind bars.

“I’m very anxious all the time. Wondering when I’m getting out mom. I think a lot, probably too much of all the things that could go wrong. I’m upset and frustrated and I just have to live with it.”

Herndon’s family filed lawsuit against GM, joining numerous others who bought faulty vehicles. When questioned about Herndon’s accident, the spokesman for GM, James Cain, stated,

“We don’t yet know many details about this accident beyond what’s contained in court documents and media reports, since discovery has just begun and the vehicle was destroyed before the lawsuit was filed. Like all trials, this case will be tried on its own merits and the plaintiff must prove to a jury that an ignition switch rotation caused the accident and the resulting injuries, not other factors.”

Attorney Adam Slater, who’s representing Herndon’s family in the lawsuit, indicated that the family’s hardship and unfortunate circumstances make their case stand out from several hundred other cases he’s handling against GM.

“This case stands out due to the horrific nature not only of the accident but the ripple effect it had on his family.”


Last month, three of the GM faulty ignitions lawsuits were dismissed, while another one was settled out of court. The Herndon family, however, is holding out hope that they’ll get the justice they think their son deserves.

[Photo by Getty Images/Handout]