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GM Ignition Switch Recall: 10 Things You Need to Know

This is my third post about the recent General Motors’ ignition switch recall, but this is an extremely important issue. At least a dozen people have died because of this defect, which could have been resolved for only a few dollars per vehicle.

CNN’s tells us ten things to know about the recall. Please read this article. Here are excerpts:

What’s the problem? The cars’ ignition switch, where the key is inserted and turned to start the car, can easily be knocked out of the “Run” position into the “Off” or “Accessory” position. This can happen if the key is jostled by a driver’s knee, for instance, or if the car hits a bumpy patch of road. The loss of power means the power braking and steering, as well as the airbags, can stop working.

What cars are involved? The cars involved in the recall are the Chevrolet Cobalt and HHR, Pontiac G5 and Solstice and the Saturn Ion and Sky. All are from model years 2003 through 2007. Not all of these models were available through all of those model years.

How many people have been killed? GM acknowledges that at least 12 deaths are linked to this problem.

The non-profit Center for Auto Safety says there may be as many as 303 deaths that could be tied to the defect. But the organization simply counted every fatal crash these cars had where the airbags failed to deploy. All we can say, for now, is that the number fatalities is probably somewhere between 12 and 303.

How long did GM know about this? GM engineers experienced a seemingly related problem when it was testing a Saturn Ion in 2001. Internal reports from GM indicate that the problem was solved with a redesigned switch. However, in 2004, another GM engineer driving a Chevrolet Cobalt, hit the key and accidentally shut the car off. That is apparently the first time GM became aware of the problem that ultimately caused this recall.

Why did it take GM so long to recall these cars? When the problem first surfaced it wasn’t thought to be a safety issue, according to documents GM shared with the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. Drivers could still still steer and stop the car and they could restart it. GM says its safety engineers weren’t aware of any deaths as a result of this issue until 2007. It then took GM engineers years to trace the problem back to a defective ignition switch, according to the papers.

How will the ignition problem be fixed? These cars were built using a defective ignition switch. A better ignition switch was installed in cars built after the 2007 model year. GM dealers will replace the defective ignition switch in the recalled cars with the new, redesigned switch.

When can my car be fixed? Not until April. It will take time to manufacture and distribute 1.4 million ignition switches. If you have one of these models, you should have already received a letter alerting you to the recall. Another letter will arrive later telling you to make an appointment to get your car fixed.

I’m worried. Should I stop driving my car? For now, GM advises drivers to make sure that there isn’t anything hanging from their car key that could knock it out of place. GM dealersare authorized to provide loaner cars to owners who are really scared about this issue. That will be handled on a case-by-case basis.

Lawsuits, Federal scrutiny mount for GM over ignition switch recall.

Reuters reports on motorist outrage at the notion that GM sat on information concerning a faulty ignition switch in its cars for years without informing regulators. The article details the experiences of several drivers of affected cars, some of whom have posted complaints on the website, which sends information to NHTSA. The article notes the ongoing NHTSA probe as well as the Administration’s description of the faulty switch that could get shifted from the “on” position to the “accessory” position. The article also references plaintiffs’ attorneys from civil litigation who scoff at GM’s offer of a $500 credit towards the purchase or lease of a new car for affected drivers.

The Detroit Free Press reports that a lawsuit has been filed stemming from a 2006 crash in Wisconsin that killed two teenage girls who were driving in a 2005 Chevrolet Cobalt, one of the vehicles affected by the recall. The suit is also being filed “on behalf of anyone who has bought or leased a vehicle suspected of having a faulty ignition switch” and seeks compensation for the decrease in resale value for the affected vehicles. Plaintiffs allege that the accident in question was not related to alcohol use but was rather affected by the shutting down of power systems caused by the malfunctioning switch. The article notes that the lawsuit “could be the first test of GM’s legal immunity from liability for deaths or injuries in accidents that happened before the current company was created” following the 2009 bankruptcy. The article notes that GM documents filed with NHTSA “show the company knew of a problem with ignition switches on early Saturn Ions as early as 2001.”

The New York Times reports that Canadian politicians are looking into how national transportation officials handled the information they had on the ignition switch issue. Transport Canada had recently announced “that it would investigate the links between General Motors’ ignition-switch defects and a fatal crash last June.” The article notes that 236,000 of the recalled vehicles across six models are in Canada. The accident from June 2013 occurred in Quebec and involved a “high-severity motor-vehicle collision when the vehicle went off road and impacted multiple trees,” killing the driver who was not wearing a seatbelt at the time.

USA Today reports that Transport Canada is analyzing black box data from the vehicle, identified as a 2007 Chevrolet Cavalier. The last known fatality to have been linked to the defect was in 2009, while the article notes that GM mechanics noticed the issue in 2004 while testing the 2005 Chevy Cobalt. The article also points out that NHTSA’s fine for GM could be as high as $35 million, while the Department of Justice is said to be examining the possibility for criminal charges.

Bloomberg News reports that the recall, which was only doubled to include 1.6 million vehicles on February 25, has “clouded the reputation of the biggest U.S. automaker … and raised a question that investigators in Washington, New York and inside GM are pursuing in parallel: Why didn’t GM recognize the potential dangers sooner?” NHTSA Spokesman Nathan Naylor reportedly explained that NHTSA “didn’t force GM to conduct the recall sooner because GM hadn’t provided timely information about the connection between defective ignition switches and failing air bags.” The article discusses at length a wrongful death lawsuit being pressed by Georgia plaintiffs stemming from a 2010 crash. The article includes a statement from GM Spokesperson Greg Martin acknowledging that the company’s decision-making process “was not as robust as it should have been.”

The Automotive News reports on a fatal 2009 crash in Pennsylvania in which a 2005 Cobalt’s airbags failed to deploy, with NHTSA investigators unable to provide a connection to the ignition switch issue at the time. The article provides a timeline of the events in the case, including a related 2005 service bulletin that GM had sent out. The article also notes that GM must provide “reams” of information to House and Senate committees by March 25 and must address the 107-question list from NHTSA by April 3. One industry analyst compares the crisis for GM to the infamous Ford Pinto episode, and the article suggests that the $100 million in repair costs could pale in comparison to results from the wave of litigation and potential government fines.

GM retains two law firms to investigate how company handled ignition switch defect. Under the headline “General Motors Calls The Lawyers,” the New York Times reports at length on GM’s choice to retain law firms King & Spalding and Jenner & Block, to proceed with a thorough “investigation into why the company failed for more than a decade to alert regulators and consumers to the defect.” According to the report, “hiring outside counsel in these cases is part investigation, part public-relations gambit and part legal strategy.” The report notes that the company’s decision to retain the two firms happened “just days after” NHTSA sent GM “a detailed order” demanding answers to “107 specific questions related to the defect and the company’s handling of it.”

The Los Angeles Times reports that GM “has acknowledged to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration that at least 12 deaths and 31 traffic accidents have been linked to its vehicles’ faulty ignition switches.”

GM customers file class action suits. TIME reports that a class action suit representing “customers claiming their vehicles lost value because of serious safety problems with General Motors vehicles” was filed on Friday, and will probably be just “the first of many.” The suit says that “GM’s mishandling of the ignition switch defect….has adversely affected the company’s reputation as a manufacturer of safe, reliable vehicles with high resale value.”

Bloomberg News reports that attorney Bob Hillard and other lawyers filed for a class-action suit against GM yesterday in Federal court in Corpus Christi, Texas, seeking “to recover $6 billion to $10 billion for the lost value of cars affected by the recall.” As for the fact that GM’s bankruptcy makes it no longer liable for accidents that happened before it sought bankruptcy protection, Hillard comments that “I’m going to go back to that bankruptcy judge and say, ‘You have to undo this, the liability of old GM, because it was the new GM’s continued coverup after the bankruptcy that allowed people to be hurt or killed.’” According to Bingham Greenebaum Doll LLP bankruptcy attorney Chip Bowles, however, “A few bankruptcy cases have been set aside for fraud on the court, but you have to establish deliberate fraud and concealment.”

The CBS Evening News broadcast briefly on the suit, while the Detroit Free Press also reports.

NHTSA reaffirms there was not enough evidence to warrant investigating GM. In continuing coverage of the General Motors recall of 1.6 million vehicles, most outlets are focusing on NHTSA’s and the company’s responses to highly vocal criticism. Several national outlets, such as ABC News, USA Today, Time, and CNN’s Money, are picking up the story that first appeared in the New York Times on a study by the Center for Auto Safety that counted 303 deaths in crashes involving the same type of GM vehicles that have been recalled. The CAS study further implied that NHTSA should have acted more swiftly to open a recall investigation.

The website of GMAuthority reports with continuing coverage of Secretary Foxx’s testimony to the Senate Appropriations Committee on Thursday. Foxx claimed that “Over the last decade there were complaints related to (these) particular vehicle(s), and despite three crash investigations and other research, the data was inconclusive. It just didn’t point to a formal investigation.” The report also notes that “Foxx said the NHTSA launched three crash investigations between 2004-2006, with two of those having their ignition switched moved from ‘run’ to ‘accessory,’ which may have disabled the air bags,” although “three people perished in those two accidents.”

WXYZ-TV Detroit reports from its website that Foxx added, “NHTSA is currently looking for ways to improve its own investigations and recall processes.”

ABC News reports online that the Center for Auto Safety conducted a review of Federal crash data and found that “303 people died after airbags failed to deploy in two of the General Motors car brands that were recalled last month.” GM dismissed the findings as being overly simplified, and, likewise, the report notes that NHTSA is claiming that “there was still not enough evidence to require a formal investigation into airbag defects.”

USA Today reports from its website, saying that the NYTimes noted that Friedman Research, the group commissioned by the Center for Auto Safety to go through the Fatality Analysis Reporting System, “looked for non-rear impact crashes in which the bags did not deploy.” USA Today conducted its own analysis of NHTSA files, though, and found that the agency’s records “show only 87 complaints involving the recalled GM vehicles in the ‘stall’ category,” and there were “no deaths are among those.”

TIME reports that on Thursday the Center for Auto Safety stated in a letter that “NHTSA could and should have initiated a defect investigation to determine why airbags were not deploying in Cobalts and Ions in increasing numbers.” GM spokesperson Greg Martin responded, however, to the NYTimes story, saying that “without rigorous analysis, it is pure speculation to attempt to draw any meaningful conclusions.”

For its part, the Detroit Free Press notes that “death counts can be misleading in the midst of a recall,” citing the case of Toyota’s sudden acceleration recall where a government probe later uncovered that “only five deaths were tied to unexpected acceleration in Toyota and Lexus vehicles.” The report also says that NHTSA reiterated, “When NHTSA finds a trend that indicates a vehicle may be an outlier, we take action.”

The Detroit Bureau reports that former NHTSA Administrator Joan Claybrook “said the current threshold for ordering an investigation is too tough and officials don’t seem to understand that it should be much lower.” Additionally, CAS Executive Director Clarence Ditlow says that GM should have been more proactive as well, because “the whole point of the recall is to eliminate the product liability lawsuit, which causes quite a bit of damage to (an automaker’s) brand as well as costing a lot of money in damages.”

From the American Association for Justice news release.

Bob Kraft

I am a Dallas, Texas lawyer who has had the privilege of helping thousands of clients since 1971 in the areas of Personal Injury law and Social Security Disability.

About This Blog

The title of this blog reflects my attitude toward those government agencies and insurance companies that routinely mistreat injured or disabled people. As a Dallas, Texas lawyer, I've spent more than 45 years trying to help those poor folk, and I have been frustrated daily by the actions of the people on the other side of their claims. (Sorry if I offended you...)

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