After more than a decade of delay and numerous deaths, General Motors has announced the recall of more than 1.6 million vehicles with faulty airbags.
GM’s CEO, Mary Barra, admitted on Tuesday, March 18 that her company was late in recalling its vehicles, but declined to specifically accept responsibility for the deaths and personal injuries caused by that delay.
In February 2014, GM announced that it was recalling 1.62 million cars worldwide for a problem in its ignition switch that can cause the switches to suddenly switch from “run” to “accessory,” disabling the vehicle’s engine, airbags and other systems. GM first became aware of the ignition switch problem in 2001, while developing the 2001 Saturn Ion. It then again saw problems during the manufacture of vehicles in 2003 and 2004, but failed to implement any effective fixes to the switches. GM waited approximately 13 years, however, before it decided to recall the vehicles to fix the potentially deadly defect. In that time, GM found 12 deaths in 31 crashes to be officially linked to the defects in its vehicles, though an independent investigation has linked the defect to at least 303 deaths.
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, the Department of Justice and two Congressional committees have each launched investigations into GM’s delay in recalling its vehicles. Hearings in those investigations are planned for late March or early April, and Barra noted that she will likely testify at those hearings. GM has also launched an internal investigation, headed by former US Attorney and current chairman of the law firm, Jenner & Block, Tony Valukas. The federal government is considering $35 million in fines against GM, and a slew of potential wrongful death lawsuits are likely from the families of those injured or killed as a result of the defect promises, which will bring even larger monetary repercussions.
GM, however, may have a legal avenue to avoid paying those potential wrongful death damages. GM declared bankruptcy in 2009, undergoing government-supervised reorganization and forming a “new” GM on July 10, 2009. “New” GM was freed from product liability and other claims for incidents occurring before that date, but “old” GM remains on the hook. “Old” GM, however, has been liquidated, and it is unlikely to be able to pay the potentially massive wrongful death damages it will owe victims for the motor vehicle defects. When prompted, Barra declined to promise that “new” GM would establish a compensation fund for victims harmed by defects in GM’s vehicles or accept liability for any of the accidents cause by those defects.
Approximately 1.37 million cars in the United States are affected by GM’s recall, including the entire production lines of the 2005-07 Chevrolet Cobalt, 2007 Pontiac G5, 2003-07 Saturn Ion, 2006-07 Chevrolet HHR, 2006-07 Pontiac Solstice, and 2007 Saturn Sky. GM expects its dealers to begin receiving replacement ignition switches on April 7, and is offering to cover the cost of rental cars for drivers who do not wish to drive their faulty vehicles before the ignition switch can be replaced.
GM has not fired or disciplined any employees in connection with the defect or the delayed recall.
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