GM Recall Reaches Criminal Level

Things have gone from bad to worse for GM since its massive ignition switch recall in February 2014. Thirteen deaths, which could turn out to be a grossly underreported number, and a more than 10-year delay by GM before recalling over 1.6 million defective vehicles has prompted numerous investigations into the events and timing of the recall. Both houses of Congress, the FBI, the Justice Department, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) and GM itself have all opened formal investigations.

Over the past month, GM recalled over 1.6 million vehicles for faulty ignition switches, first on February 13, 2014, and then again on February 24, 2014. The recalls include the 2005-07 Chevy Cobalt, the 2006-07 Chevy HHR and Pontiac Solstice, the 2003-07 Saturn Ion and the 2007 Saturn Sky and Pontiac G5 vehicles.

Defective ignition switches can move from the “run” to “accessory” or “off” position if the key ring is too heavy, or if the vehicle is jarred while moving, a common phenomenon when driving a car. When the ignition key moves from the “on” position, engine power suddenly stalls cutting off electrical and engine power to the steering, braking and safety systems like airbags and seatbelts. So far, GM has only reported deaths involving front-end collisions where the airbags did not deploy. There could be many more claims for lack of brakes, lack of steering or other airbag malfunctions.

A criminal investigation was opened after GM, at the request of the NHTSA, admitted it first knew about the faulty ignition switch in 2004. GM claims that one if its engineers “accidentally” knocked an ignition switch in a new 2005 model Chevy Cobalt out of the “run” position, causing the engine to shut off. Engineers were able to reproduce the engine shut off but continued with production and sale of the Cobalt without changes to the ignition switch.

Now newly released GM internal documents reveal that problems with the ignition switch first came to light in 2001 during pre-production for the Saturn Ion. The 2001 Ion launched with a redesigned ignition switch but the Chevy Cobalt switch was not changed until after 2007.

Could anything have been done to make the vehicles safer before putting them on the road? In a classic example of corporate greed over consumer safety Delphi Automotive, supplier of the faulty ignition switch, just announced the defective switch could have been replaced for as little as $2-5 per vehicle. GM changed the ignition switch after the 2007 model but still produced the now-recalled 1.6 million vehicles with the defective part. The good news for consumers is that Delphi confirmed GM is the only car manufacturer that used the defective ignition switches.

Federal law requires car manufacturers to notify the NHTSA within 5 days of learning about a vehicle safety defect. Certainly a car’s power shutting off unexpectedly, also shutting down safety systems in the process, would qualify as a safety defect.

After skirting their responsibility for 13 years, GM must now answer many difficult questions. Most importantly, what did GM know when, and did it take timely steps to protect its customers?

Tough questions to answer as investigations abound against GM

The U.S. House and Energy Commerce Committee, and the Senate panel that oversees consumer product safety, want to know when GM first learned of a problem with the ignition switch, and how GM responded to customer complaints about their cars stalling out. Congress has demanded documents from both GM and the NHTSA, about their actions, and inactions, leading up to the 2014 vehicle recall.

The NHTSA is the federal regulatory body whose sole focus is vehicle safety. After these 1.6 million vehicles apparently fell through the NHTSA safety net, Congress is also questioning the effectiveness of current safety regulations, reporting requirements and recall enforcement procedures. The New York Times just reported that the NHTSA received more than 260 complaints over the last 11 years about GM vehicle engines dying unexpectedly, yet never opened an investigation.  Why not? Shouldn’t we demand more of the individuals whose job it is to evaluate and enforce vehicle safety?

GM and the NHTSA have until March 25th to provide the requested documents which include a “detailed timeline of interactions and communications between GM and the NHTSA related to stalls, air bags and/or ignition switches in the GM vehicles subject to recall,” according to a recent New York Times report (03/11/14).

So, will this seemingly reprehensible conduct rise to the level of criminal charges being filed? The Justice Department and the FBI are examining documents and the ever-changing timeline to decide whether GM and its decision-making executives should be criminally liable for the deaths and injuries related to the faulty switch. Federal prosecutors are also examining whether GM failed to timely report vehicle problems under federal law, or whether there is evidence GM intentionally misled federal regulators at the NHTSA about the ignition switch defect.

Clarence Ditlow of the consumer advocacy group The Center for Auto Safety said, “It’s high time for the Justice Department to conduct criminal investigations of automakers who conceal defects and people die.”

We applaud the criminal investigation. Civil penalties alone are not enough. The NHTSA may fine GM a record $35 million dollars but that amount is just a drop in the bucket compared to over $3 billion GM earned in 2013. Until corporations put people ahead of profits, public safety over production schedules, and human lives before the bottom line, things will remain business as usual and the public will continue to suffer.

“Merely fining a multi-billion dollar corporation is getting to be just a cost of doing business,” said Greg Bubalo of Bubalo Law PLC, adding that, “Until individual corporate executives are held personally and criminally responsible for allowing preventable injuries and death, then such behavior will simply continue.  A person’s life is obviously worth more than $2 to $5 for every car made.”

When will repairs be made?

Recall repairs are slated for some time in April, yet owners of the affected vehicles have no firm repair date as replacement parts for the 1.6 million affected vehicles will first have to be manufactured and distributed to dealers. Repairs are being offered free of charge to vehicle owners, but how long it will take for repairs to be completed is still unknown.

If I own one of the vehicles affected by the recall, should I drive my car until repairs are made?

Until repairs are made, remove all objects from your key ring other than the ignition key. If you feel unsafe driving your vehicle, GM is offering a free loaner car until repairs are made, and $500 toward the purchase of a new GM vehicle.

What if I have questions?

If you own one of the recalled vehicles, direct your questions to:

  • Chevrolet 1-800-222-1020
  • Pontiac 1-800-762-2737
  • Saturn 1-800-553-6000
  • NHTSA 1-888-327-4236