GM hasn’t paid for its crimes

May 21, 2015

The victims of GM cars and their families deserve answers, writes Elizabeth Schulte.

LAST YEAR, GM officials reluctantly estimated that faulty ignition switches could be linked to some 13 deaths from crashes involving several of their smaller car models.

A year later, that number has reached 104, according to an announcement by the company compensation fund on May 18--leaving family members of those killed and injured in crashes involving GM cars to ask just how many more deaths were the result of corporate negligence. And just how many more years will it take to discover the true cost?

According to Kenneth Feinberg, a "compensation expert" hired by GM, more than 4,300 claims for deaths and injuries have been filed so far. In addition to the 104 fatalities, claims for 191 injuries have been approved. The company was forced to recall more than 9 million cars in the U.S., including Chevrolet Cobalt and Saturn models, beginning in February 2014.

It took more than a decade to get GM officials to finally acknowledge that something might be wrong with their cars--a faulty ignition switch that could turn off the engine at any time, also disabling the air bags, power steering and power brakes, even while the vehicle was still traveling at a high speed.

One of the GM cars with a faulty ignition switch
One of the GM cars with a faulty ignition switch

Before that admission, the families and friends of people who died in crashes of GM cars had to live with unanswered questions about what had happened to their loved ones.

In December 2003, 81-year-old Jean Averill's 2004 Saturn Ion went off the road and hit a tree. The airbag didn't deploy--she lost consciousness and died a few hours later. "We had no idea that it was the fault of the car," said her son Mark. "The car had less than 500 miles on it, it was a brand-new car."

GM has given the Averills until July 19 to accept a compensation offer. If they don't, they could pursue legal action against the automaker. But this could be difficult, since the "new" GM after its 2009 bankruptcy isn't responsible for accidents that occurred under the previous company.

The compensation fund currently available to GM survivors is woefully inadequate.

Seventeen-year-old Tanner Tucker of Versailles, Indiana, was killed when his 2002 Pontiac Grand Am hit a tree in August 2010. His family said that accident investigators never determined the cause of the crash. Then, last year, they received their safety recall notice from GM, requesting that the vehicle be taken in to fix an "unintended key rotation."

Photos from the crash revealed that Tucker's key was out of the "on" position, which could explain why he lost control of the car. The family is now suing the automaker, and is also requesting that the compensation fund, which only covers cars manufactured between 2003 and 2007, be expanded. "We believe that this ghastly oversight means GM's creation of the fund has been arbitrary, and was just a PR stunt to appease Congress and stave off more public outcry," said the Tuckers' lawyer Steve Berman.

DESPITE THE fact that the malfunction had been reported by car owners and discussed by GM engineers in internal documents--and the cost of repairing the switch came to as little as 57 cents--GM executives chose instead to protect their bottom line. Internal memos revealed during congressional hearings in April 2014 showed that GM gambled with people's lives rather fix the problem.

And if GM got away with murder, it's only because the government agency that was supposed to serve as a watchdog over the auto industry didn't do its job. According to a report released by the House Energy and Commerce Committee in September 2014, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) either overlooked the evidence of faulty equipment or failed to understand it was a problem. Crashes continued for years, according to the report, without the agency recognizing that there was a problem.

According to a New York Times investigation last year, the NHTSA received complaints about the GM cars stalling as far back as 1997, yet it refused to investigate the incidents and told drivers that there wasn't enough evidence to open an investigation, even after drivers showed similar complaints that they had found on the Internet.

Up to a month before the ignition switch recall began in February 2014, the NHTSA was dismissing complaints about the GM vehicles that were recalled--5,000 complaints about the ignition problems, including more than 2,000 about stalling, according to the Times.

This reflects a pattern throughout the auto industry, as faulty--and dangerous--vehicles are allowed to take to the U.S. highways. And now more and more companies are joining GM on the list of recalled cars. More than 600 million vehicles were recalled in the U.S. in 2014, twice as many as 10 years ago.

Today, GM is concentrating on settling claims. While survivors and families--and that means all the families--deserve reparations for the death and injuries that GM is responsible for, justice can't end with this.

First of all, the GM compensation program came with a deadline--January 31--so applicants were provided with just five months to submit their claims. Meanwhile, GM was allowed a decade before it was finally asked to begin answering for its crimes.

But if there is going to be any justice, the people and institutions to blame for these crashes will also have to be held responsible. In the immediate aftermath of the recall last year, GM fired 15 employees and paid $35 million in fines to the NTSA for their failure to report the defect.

Yet the people who set and defend the policy at GM--like GM's new CEO Mary Barra, who made $16.2 million in salary, stocks and other compensation last year, in part based on the way she has "handled" the recall crisis--aren't being held responsible. Nor are the federal watchdogs that failed to take these dangerous cars seriously.

Not until this happens will there be any justice for victims of GM's greed. "They should be penalized," said Mark Averill, whose mother was killed in a GM car. "People should go to jail."

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