The Law Blog of Oklahoma

GM Recall Failures Prompt Criminal Investigation

Posted: Friday, June 13, 2014

In 2001, engineers noticed a problem with the ignition switch in pre-production testing of the Saturn Ion. A mechanism inside the switch that was supposed to hold the key in place failed to secure the key, but the automaker said that the issue was resolved on redesign of the switch.

Just two years later, in 2003, a GM service technician noted that a Saturn Ion suddenly stalled when driving, and noted that the weight of other keys on the key ring seemed to jostle the ignition key out of place.

A year after that, in 2004, a GM engineer testing a Chevy Cobalt accidentally bumped the ignition key, causing the vehicle to abruptly lose power.

In 2005, engineers proposed the redesign of Cobalt ignition keys, not the ignition switch itself, to prevent people from adding fobs, key rings, or keys that could make it easier to jostle the ignition key. However, GM decided that the fix was "too costly" (incidents taken from GM recall timeline found here).

Despite these early warning signs and a number of issues with the ignition switch and airbags that failed to deploy, it wasn't for until nearly a decade later that GM issued a recall which eventually affected 2.6 million cars worldwide. During the delay, GM acknowledges that at least 13 people have died in car crashes caused by the faulty ignition switch, and says that the number could actually be much higher.

To add insult to injury, the automaker earlier this month sent out recall notices to the families of those killed as a result of the faulty ignition switch. While GM quickly apologized, public relations experts say that the lack of sympathy shown by GM to the victims is unacceptable. "For members of the families," says the senior vice president of one P.R. firm, "no apology is going to be enough."

Among those who have been harmed by GM's failure to recall the affected vehicles is one woman who was actually convicted of criminally negligent homicide as the driver of a vehicle involved in an accident that killed her fiance in 2004. The woman was found to have a trace amount of anti-anxiety medication in her system. She has lived with the consequences of being a convicted felon and has been blamed for her loved one's death for nearly a decade, but in May she discovered that her fiance's death is one of the 13 linked to the faulty ignition switch.

Knowing that GM knew of the problem for more than 10 years before doing anything about it is infuriating to those who have been injured or lost loved ones in accidents related to the "switch from hell." Not only has the automobile manufacturer's epic failure led to numerous lawsuits, it has also prompted federal investigation by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), Congress, and a federal prosecutor with the United States Attorney's Office in Manhattan.

The results of an internal GM investigation say that there was no cover-up in delaying the recall, but rather "a pattern of incompetence and neglect" that led to the firing of 15 GM employees and executives and the discipline of five others. Of the terminations and disciplinary measures, General Motors CEO Mary Barra says, "Some were removed because of what we consider misconduct or incompetence. Others have been relieved because they simply didn't do enough. They didn't take responsibility, didn't act with any sense of urgency."

Although Barra says that the internal investigation did not turn up any more serious safety issues, consumers will be hard pressed to trust a company that failed to address a lethal design flaw for more than 10 years. 

Image Credit: Michael Kumm

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