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Rick Shapiro
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GM Delayed Recalls Despite Knowing Cars in Fatal Crashes Had Defective Parts

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Every few days since I first wrote about a massive recall of General Motors’ cars, the automaker has gone public with information about mechanical and design defects that could put drivers and passengers in the company’s vehicle at risk for accidents resulting in injuries and death.

I initially called attention to the possible laxness of oversight and intervention by the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration as the reason for as many as 13 deaths and 31 crashes resulting from a problem with ignition switches in, mostly, Chevy Cobalts. The cars’ engines could shut off instantly and without warning. NHTSA began receiving reports of serious problems with GM small cars in 2005, but the agency determined that the percentage of defects remained too small to compel immediate action by it or the car maker.

Issuing broad warnings and recalls in light of rare events can be tough, but NHTSA exists specifically to make such tough calls. Agency staff undoubtedly failed the people killed and hurt in car crashes caused by the problems with GM vehicles, but blame does not rest solely, or even primarily, with the federal watchdogs.

USA Today on March 30, 2014, reported that GM executives accepted delivery of ignition switches from Delphi despite being told by the parts manufacturer that the switches did not meet performance or reliability standards. NHTSA would not have known that GM intentionally installed substandard, potentially hazardous parts. The executives at the company who did know need to be held liable.

The company now has notices out on more than 6 million cars for issues ranging from those faulty ignition switches to unreliable power steering systems. A full list of GM recalls between the beginning of February and the end of March 2014 does not seem to exist in one, easy-to-read package. Anyone who owns or regularly drives a Buick, Chevrolet, Cadillac, GMC, Oldsmobile, Pontiac or Saturn might be well-advised to visit the official GM recall site and enter his or her vehicle information.

GM has pledged to fix all problems at no cost to owners, and in mid-March named a new vice president of global vehicle safety. The moves may be welcome, but they also seem much too late. The course corrections also look like far too little in light of the disclosure that company officials knew before the first fatal crash occurred that such an event was all but inevitable.

Lawsuits filed in the wake of the current recalls should call attention to GM executives’ knowledge of parts defects. Nothing can excuse  intentionally putting drivers and passengers at risk for death and injuries.

Perhaps this is why current GM CEO Mary Barra plans to plead ignorance when she testifies before the U.S. House Committee on Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations on April 1. Barra’s written statement, submitted to the committee and released to the public, reads like something someone just hired by the company in the last few months would submit.

In the first substantive paragraph Bara states, “More than a decade ago, GM embarked on a small car program. Sitting here today, I cannot tell you why it took years for a safety defect to be announced in that program, but I can tell you that we will find out.”

In reality, Barra has held a series of high-level managerial positions with the company since being first hired in 1980. In the years before being named CEO, she ran the car maker’s supply chain and product development divisions. She had no direct oversight of the manufacturing of small cars during the most problematic years of 2004 through 2007, it beggars the imagination to think she had no knowledge of safety issues affecting many well-selling GM vehicles.

GM cannot be allowed to shirk its liability. Nor can it be allowed to succeed with its appallingly cynical strategy to sell new “safer” cars to owners of recalled vehicles who come to dealerships to have repairs made. Yes, this really is part of the company’s recall recovery plan. Another tack GM may take to avoid liability is claiming that its 2008 bankruptcy shields its from product-related lawsuits arising from accidents that occurred in the years before it restructured. The company has used that shield in the past.

Regardless of what it tries, the automaker must be made to provide financial compensation to the families and individuals harmed by its unsafe vehicles. Then it should never again accept delivery of parts its executives know have life-threatening defects.

EJL