General Motors (GM)’s top lawyer Michael Millikin is retiring from the company early next year after a 36-year career with the Detroit automaker. His resignation comes amid a U.S. Justice Department investigation of the company’s handling of its deadly ignition switch defect, which affects 2.6 million vehicles and has been linked to at least 29 deaths and 27 serious injuries.
Mr. Millikin and GM’s entire legal team have fallen under harsh criticism after it became known that they played a key role in the company’s inaction while millions of vehicles with defective, potentially deadly ignition switches rolled off GM assembly lines for more than a decade.
According to the Wall Street Journal, “The actions of GM’s lawyers are among areas where prosecutors have focused their attention.”
Rather than complying with National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) rules mandating automakers report safety defects within days of discovery, GM may have tried to conceal the defect from federal authorities even when its legal department was repeatedly warned about the possibility that GM could face high punitive damage awards for those violations.
Mr. Millikin has said that as GM’s General Counsel, he remained in the dark about the ignition switch debacle. Legislators reviewing GM’s handling of the ignition switch recall, which was finally launched in February and subsequently expanded, have drilled CEO Mary Barra about Mr. Millikin’s continued presence at GM, even when so many of his staff, who were instrumental in navigating the company through the ignition switch problem, were fired after GM announced it was cleaning house.
Senator Claire McCaskill (D. Mo.), was one of the legislators who asked Ms. Barra why Mr. Millikin was still with the company. “How in the world, in the aftermath of this [internal] report, did Michael Millikin keep his job?” Sen. McCaskill asked during a mid-July hearing. “This is either gross negligence or gross incompetence.”
While some legislators expressed optimism that Mr. Millikin’s departure would create a blank slate for the company to move forward, others aren’t as hopeful that a new general counsel would make a difference in a company characterized by systemic negligence and incompetence.
Lance Cooper, a Georgia attorney who represented plaintiffs in a pivotal case against GM, told the Wall Street Journal he’s “not sure much will change” with Mr. Millikin’s departure. “The company has reverted back to what it was doing before the recalls, fighting all these cases tooth and nail.”