Product Liability

Congress sets hearings on GM ignition switch recall

GM logo Congress sets hearings on GM ignition switch recallGeneral Motors CEO Mary Barra will testify before a U.S. House of Representatives subcommittee April 1 as lawmakers attempt to understand why the company she took over in mid-January knew about a potentially deadly ignition switch defect in some of its vehicles for more than a decade but failed to recall them until this past February.

The House Energy and Commerce Committee will question Ms. Barra in an effort to understand if “this tragedy could have been prevented and what can be done to ensure the loss of life” doesn’t happen again.

GM announced two recalls in February of 1.6 million vehicles with faulty ignition switches. The problem stems from the column and spring inside the ignition that hold the key in place. Keys have the potential to switch the ignition from “run” to the “accessory” position, cutting the engine off and disabling power steering, brakes, air bags, and other safety systems. The problem is more likely to occur when the keychain is too heavy or the car is jolted by driving over a bump.

The company says it has linked the problem to 12 deaths and 31 crashes, but a study commissioned by the Center for Auto Safety found the toll could be in excess of 300 fatalities.

Consumer complaints about the ignition switch go back to 2001. National Highway Traffic Administration (NHTSA) officials notified GM of the potential problem in 2007, according to company documents, which leads to another mystery: Why did the NHTSA fail to force a repair when it was also receiving complaints about the faulty ignition?

To answer some of those questions, the congressional committee will grill David Friedman, the acting head of the NHTSA. Neither Ms. Barra nor Mr. Friedman were in charge as the safety defect went unaddressed.

“The problems originated long before Barra and Friedman took the helms of their respective organizations,” Committee Chairman Fred Upton said, “but their actions and input now, as our investigation proceeds, will be essential to getting answers about what went wrong.”

The House panel has not said whether it plans to call previous GM and NHTSA leaders to the hearing for questioning.

Because it failed to address the issue years ago, GM now faces a mounting number of wrongful-death, personal injury, and product liability lawsuits, steep civil and possibly criminal fines, and a blow to its reputation and image when it was regaining traction and momentum after its 2009 bankruptcy and government bailout.