As a number of investigations progress into General Motors (GM) and why it failed for 13 years to recall its defective ignition switches, more and more evidence collected in the probes indicates awareness of the problem went far beyond a few mid-level employees, as GM has claimed.
According to the New York Times, GM’s legal department, including its general counsel, “acted with increasing urgency in the last 12 months to grapple with the spreading impact of the ignition problem.”
Depositions ordered in litigation involving the defective switches also threatened to implicate GM executives, prompting several departments to step up their efforts to fix the ignition switches. These efforts occurred at a time when GM was aggressively fighting, and in some cases confidentially settling, personal-injury and wrongful-death claims stemming from the defective switches, allegedly to keep the a growing awareness of the problem at bay.
Not even a database full of crash records and an escalating number of complaints prompted GM to take action on the switches.
But GM’s efforts to conceal the ignition switch problem began to crumble once company engineers were ordered to give depositions. One case in particular, brought by the family of Brooke Melton, a 29-year-old Georgia nurse who was killed when her Chevy Cobalt lost power and crashed, clearly demonstrated that GM knew more than it was revealing about the switch problem.
In that trial, GM’s chief switch engineer Raymond DeGiorgio testified that he never approved of a change in the switch, even though evidence showed the automaker made substantial improvements to the ignition switch in 2006.
Melton family attorney Lance Cooper later produced documents, however, that “showed conclusively that the ignition switch in G.M.’s small cars had been drastically improved in 2006 without a corresponding change in the part’s identification number,” according to the New York Times. Nor did the company notify federal regulators of the faulty part as law requires it to do within five days of discovering the problem.
When one of GM’s top-ranking engineers Jim Federico was deposed in the case, GM lawyers, who had been fighting the Melton family for more than two years, abruptly made “a surprise offer to mediate and settle the case,” and even “turned around and accepted (a) deal” they had earlier rejected.
Other evidence showing GM’s awareness of the ignition switch defect was possibly more widespread is contained in a letter it received from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) last July, bluntly accusing the company of failing to respond promptly to a number of safety problems.
But that letter, which was widely circulated among GM’s top executives and key safety officials, including Mr. Federico, never spurred the company to act on the ignition switch problem.
In fact, records show that from the time GM employees began giving depositions in the Melton case in April 2013 to the end of the year, at least 112 crashes occurred involving the now-recalled vehicles. Those crashes killed three people and injured 122 others, though it’s not clear yet whether the ignition switches were to blame in any of them.
GM says that the ignition switch defect is responsible for 13 deaths and more than 30 crashes since 2004, when it started installing the bad part in millions of vehicles.