General Motors is responsible for over 124 deaths and 266 injuries due to a faulty ignition switch, of which factory workers and corporate officials alike were aware. However, prosecutors attempting to charge individual employees who knew about this deadly defect have been met with an unfortunate legal roadblock.
Despite a history of lawmakers’ attempts to create stricter regulations, including criminal liability, for automakers, automakers and lobbyists have successfully kept legal standards low for the auto industry. The result of substantial lobbying and interference from trade groups representing the auto industry is that the current prosecution of G.M. over the release of defective automobiles is an uphill battle, with the prosecution of individual G.M. employees proving even more difficult.
Some lawmakers, including Senator Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut, are fighting to introduce laws that would inflict stiffer criminal penalties for corporate workers who knowingly conceal a defect that endangers the safety of the public. However, a spokesperson for the auto alliance argued that imposing criminal penalties would not spur faster recall decisions by automakers or help identify defects faster.
Last spring, General Motors (GM) launched a payment program to reimburse families and individuals who suffered accidents and injuries due to defective ignition switches, a defect that prompted GM to recall over 2 million vehicles over the course of the year.
The original goal of this program, led by Kenneth Feinburg, was to quickly deliver compensation to victims while minimizing possible damage to the company’s image. Despite the initial concern of some personal injury lawyers that the amount of payment offered would not be sufficient, many claimants have accepted the proposed settlements. Of the 93 payment packages offered thus far, 49 have been accepted while 44 claimants are still considering the offer. This statistic is expected to change.
Claimants have a 90-day window to choose whether or not to accept GM’s settlement offer, which some, including Connecticut Senator Richard Blumenthal, have criticized as too narrow a window to make a possibly life-changing decision. Some of the claimants have experienced a death in the family or severe injuries that will permanently affect their livelihoods, and for these people, the settlement amount offered may be nowhere near enough to cover the depth of their losses.
There are over 4,000 claims against GM still pending review. Work on these is expected to continue through the upcoming months.
A recently released email suggests that GM urged their supplier, Delphi, to continue to produce ignition switches for their vehicles even after they continued to fail safety testing, according to a report in the New York Times on November 21.
The email was entered as evidence in the multidistrict lawsuit filed against GM in New York. The ignition switch has been identified as the cause of 33 deaths and many more injuries in crashes involving Chevy Cobalts and Saturn Ions in the early 2000s. Simply bumping the ignition has been found to cause the vehicles to stall, but the recent email also revealed that deficient levels of electrical current may have also contributed to the problem. When reports of accidents began stacking up, Raymond DeGiorgio, the GM engineer who approved the switch design in 2001, demanded more stringent safety testing from Delphi.
However, a 2005 email from Thomas Svoboda, the customer specialist at Delphi assigned to the case, accuses DeGiorgio of ordering the tests only to “cover his butt,” knowing that it would fail. Svoboda also expresses frustration with Delphi, saying that they should have refused business with GM, one of their largest accounts, instead of being bullied into “spending hundreds or thousands of hours trying to make it work” even though both sides knew the switch “was never able to cut it.”
DeGiorgio denies these allegations, saying, “I did my job the best I could.”