NHTSA and GM CEO Face Grilling over Ignition Switch Recall

On April 1st and 2nd, 2014, congressional members are expected to grill NHTSA personnel and GM CEO Mary Barra over the ignition switch issues.  The initial recall on Feb. 13, covering 778,562 Cobalts and G5s, was widened less than two weeks later to more than 800,000 additional vehicles.  Those include 2003-2007 Saturn Ions, 2006-2007 Chevrolet HHRs, 2006-2007 Pontiac Solstices and 2006-2007 Saturn Skys.  Other models affected are the 2005-06 Pontiac Pursuit sold in Canada and the 2007 Opel GT sold in Europe.

The ignition switch manufacturer is Delphi Automotive.  The failure is believed to be caused when weight on the ignition key, road conditions or some other jarring event causes the ignition switch to move out of the “run” position, turning off the engine and most of the car’s electrical components mid-drive.  The defect could cause cars to stall, airbags to fail and other problems while moving at high speeds.

Earlier, Reuters reported the United States Attorney in Manhattan Preet Bharara was investigating whether General Motors is criminally liable for failing to properly disclose problems with these recalled vehicles that are linked to 13 deaths.
Michigan Republican Fred Upton, who was the prime sponsor of 2000 legislation creating regulations for reporting to NHTSA, is the House Energy and Commerce Chairman who will be pursuing the ignition switch issues. Upton led the 2000 investigation into Firestone tire failures on Ford Motor Co. vehicles, resulting in the TREAD Act that requires automakers to report complaints of defects to the NHTSA.

On March 11, 2014 this committee asked CEO Mary Barra of GM to provide documents and field reports related to the recall. “The committee will examine whether GM knowingly allowed faulty and dangerous cars to remain on the road,” said Representative Henry Waxman of California.

Another issue this recall raises is who is liable to the victims and their families of those killed.  Is this the problem of the post bankruptcy General Motors, or is it a pre-bankruptcy issue that was discharged when the new government backed GM emerged?  A corresponding issue is when did GM know of the problem and what did it do about it.  Under bankruptcy law, experts say the new GM is not liable for the old GM’s conduct.  But other experts say if the old GM knew of the defects and knowingly did not disclose them; the obligation is not discharged.  As more facts emerge, so to will clearer lines of liability.

Here is a timeline of the recall issues:

• 2001: GM acknowledges that in pre-production of the Saturn Ion in 2001 “an internal company report identifies a problem between the ignition switch and the vehicle’s anti-theft system.”

• 2003: a service technician observes a stall while driving and notes owner “had several keys on the key ring” and that the “additional weight of the keys had worn out the ignition switch.” Service technician “replaced the ignition switch” and report was closed.”

• December 2005: GM issues service bulletin to dealers on 2005-6 Cobalts, 2006 Chevrolet HHRs, 2005-6 Chevrolet Pursuits (Canada), 2006 Pontiac Solstices and 2003-6 Saturn Ions-which all have same ignition switch. Bulletin says driver could inadvertently move key out of “run” position, especially if driver is short or key chain weighted down, potentially affecting power steering and brakes. No mention of airbags. Dealers are told to “Question customer thoroughly” and can offer insert for key with hole instead of slot and provide smaller key chain.”

• 2007: By year’s end, GM investigating engineer knows of 10 Cobalt crashes in which airbags did not deploy and that key was in “accessory” position in at least four of them.

• July 10, 2009: GM exits bankruptcy leaving old GM and liabilities behind.

Hopefully, GM will get this problem fixed so that no one else suffers injury or death.

Americans rely on their car manufacturers to provide a safe well-designed vehicle.  Sadly, that is not often the case.  The Auto Defect Attorneys at The Brandi Law Firm has successfully represented many people injured from defective Toyotas, Fords, Chryslers, Volkswagens, GM products and numerous other manufacturers and suppliers.  Often times, people involved in accidents do not examine the issues of defective vehicle design nor whether the car was truly crashworthy – does it contain the appropriate crash protection.  If you or a loved one has been injured in an auto crash, our attorneys at The Brandi Law Firm are available to consult with you.  Please contact our office at 800-481-1615 or email us.

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