Families of GM Crash Victims say Apology Not Enough

Today, GM’s Chief Executive Officer, Mary T. Barra, testified before Congress about why the automaker waited more than a decade to recall vehicles linked to 13 deaths.

House investigators said in a memo today that consumers complained to GM dealers 133 times about cars unexpectedly stalling or turning off when they drove over bumps or gently touched the ignition key.

At a news conference outside the U.S. Capitol, family members of crash victims called for tougher criminal penalties for automakers that fail to report defects. Henry Waxman, the top Democrat on the U.S. House Energy and Commerce Committee, said he will introduce legislation today to increase penalties on automakers that fail to disclose defects, strengthen disclosure requirements for companies, and boost funding for the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA).

Today’s hearing before the committee focused on ignition switches that turned off when jarred, cutting power to the vehicle.  Barra sat for more than two hours, fielding questions about GM’s delay in recalling 2.6 million vehicles and reverted to her apologetic responses.

Photographs of those who lost their lives as a result of the defect were displayed on the walls of the hearing room.

In his opening remarks, Oversight and Investigations Subcommittee Chairman had a series of questions he laid out, hoping GM’s new Chief Executive Officer would answer. Most importantly, why didn’t GM and NHTSA put the pieces together for more than 10 years? And why did GM accept parts below its own company standards? He wanted to know why GM replaced ignition switches in new cars but not in the older models.  Still unanswered, why did NHTSA twice decide not to investigate the Cobalt?

Barra announced that the company has retained the Washington lawyer most famously associated with the 9/11 compensation fund as a consultant to explore and evaluate GM’s options in its response to the families of victims. The families are not satisfied with a mere apology from Barra. GM hasn’t promised yet that the families will get the company’s cash, but the fact that they are being advised by the Washington lawyer from 9/11’s cases, raises the possibility of a victims compensation fund perhaps down the road. Barra did say, “We do understand we have civic responsibilities as well as legal responsibilities,” when asked about how the company would handle pre-bankruptcy crashes, according to The Los Angeles Times.

When Barra responded to the question, “Why in the world would a company with a stellar reputation like GM purchase a part that did not meet its own specifications?” she said that that is not the way GM does business today. The engineer who questioned her then stated, “With all respect, what you just answered is gobbledygook.”

Although Barra has worked for GM since she was 19 years old, she was newly hired as GM’s CEO.  During questioning, a screwdriver inscribed with the words, Safety comes first at GM was shown and the question asked, what has changed? Barra responded:  I can’t comment on the past.

Barra replaced Dan Akerson who was CEO from 2010 to early 2014. He left GM when his wife was diagnosed with advanced-stage cancer. He was not present at today’s meeting, but Barra said Akerson did not know about the faulty ignition. His absence at today’s hearing seems quite convenient for GM’s questioning. Barra can blame it all on him, since he no longer works at GM.

Playing ignorant is not what families of the victims waited so many years to hear.

When Barra was asked if GM would share the full report once the internal investigation has been completed, she wouldn’t say. “We will share what’s appropriate,” was all she would answer.

An article published in The New York Times in 2005 was brought up at today’s hearing as another piece of evidence suggesting GM had prior knowledge about the faulty ignition switches. Chevrolet dealers are telling Cobalt owners to lighten their key rings to prevent intermittent stalling and loss of electrical power in their cars. General Motors issued a service bulletin to dealers suggesting this fix. Barra said she had no recollection of the article.

Congress will continue its investigation. In the weeks and months to come, lower-level GM employees will be called to future hearings as subcommittee members seek answers as to who knew what, when they knew it, and why they didn’t do anything to fix the cars.

NHTSA, the nation’s top automobile safety regulator, is being questioned by Congress as to whether or not the agency failed in their duties regarding investigating reports about GM’s faulty cars. In a House memo revealed on Sunday, investigators alleged, “that the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration twice considered formal probes but decided not to proceed.”

A Senate hearing is scheduled for Wednesday. We will bring you updated information as it becomes available. For more information, contact one of our Gacovino Lake attorneys at 1-800-246-HURT (4878).

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