GM Conceals Fatal Defect for Over 10 Years

GM finally issued two recalls involving six model vehicles built between 2003 and 2007 for a defective ignition switch problem that has caused 31 accidents and 13 deaths. The massive recall includes over 1.37 million vehicles in the United States and another quarter of a million in Canada and Mexico.

GM first issued a recall of 780,000 Chevy Cobalts 2005-2007 models and 2007 Pontiac G5 models on February 13, 2014 to address the known faulty ignition switch problem.

Then on February 25, 2014, GM recalled an additional 842,000 vehicles including the 2006-2007 Chevrolet HHR and Pontiac Solstice, as well as the 2003-2007 Saturn Ion and 2007 Saturn Sky. All of the affected vehicles were built with the faulty ignition switch.

The defect in the ignition switch causes the ignition key to move from the “run” position to the “accessory” or “off” position if there is too much weight on a key ring or if the vehicle is jarred while in motion. When this occurs, the engine and electrical power may spontaneously shut off without warning to the vehicle occupants thereby cutting off power to the braking, steering and safety systems in the vehicle, including the front-end airbags.  “The cars basically become a 3200 pound, out-of-control, battering ram,” says Greg Bubalo of the law firm of Bubalo Law PLC.

An official repair date has yet to be announced because new parts will need to be made, and then distributed, to GM dealers around North America before the necessary repairs can be made. Repairs may begin in early April, and dealers will replace the ignition switch free of charge to owners. Until then, GM is warning owners of the affected vehicles to remove the weight from their key rings, and have only the ignition key on their key ring until the repairs are made.

Another glaring issue is when GM first knew of the defect. Many are claiming that GM has known about the faulty ignition switch since 2004, and are wondering why it took 10 years to issue a recall.  Federal regulations require a car manufacturer to notify the NHTSA (National Highway Traffic Safety Administration) within five business days once it learns of a safety problem.

The NHTSA has formally opened an investigation into the recall delay and is demanding GM provide documents, photographs, engineering data and other information to ascertain exactly when GM knew of the ignition switch problems.

Bubalo explains, “GM may be subject to up to a $35 million fine if the NHTSA determines it delayed the recall or withheld information from federal investigators. The amount of the fine is determined by the number of incidents occurring because of the defect, the severity of the injuries, and the total number of vehicles involved in the recall.”

GM admitted it has been “aware” of the problem for 10 years, as it filed a chronology of events with the NHTSA acknowledging problems with the key ignition as early as 2004. GM engineers specifically knew of a problem with the ignition key in the Chevy Cobalt model before its release for sale in 2005. If GM knew the Cobalt was potentially dangerous, why in the world did it take them 10 years, 31 accidents and 13 front-seat fatalities to issue the recall? The answer, to Bubalo, is simple: “Unbridled corporate greed.”

GM even redesigned the ignition switch in 2005 but never implemented the changes. Service bulletins were issued to GM dealers in 2005 and 2006 showing how to fix the problem with a key insert, and recommending dealers advise affected customers to take extra keys off their key rings IF the customer complained of a problem.

By 2007, the chronology reveals GM knew of at least 10 different instances involving the Cobalt where airbags did not deploy in front-end type crashes, but still failed to notify the NHTSA or recall affected vehicles.

GM North American President Alan Batey recently apologized for the 10-year recall delay saying “…the chronology shows that the process employed to examine this phenomenon was not as robust as it should have been.”

Not much consolation for the 13 dead, their families and friends. This case tragically illustrates why car manufacturers need to be held accountable for the vehicles they put in the marketplace, and why it is imperative they timely notify federal investigators of safety problems and immediately recall vehicles affected by safety issues.

It now appears that the cost of 13 lives was a cheaper price to pay than the decision to recall over a million vehicles and repair the fatal problem when it first arose 10 years ago. “Even if GM is fined a record $35 million, it’s a drop in the bucket compared to the $3.8 billion it made in 2013 alone,” says Bubalo. The cost-benefit analysis of timely recalls and repairs versus paying on injury and death claims certainly does not tip in favor of consumer safety.