GM Ignition Switch Scandal Echoes Infamous Fire-Prone Pickups Case

The GM Renaissance Center in Detroit, Michigan. Photo courtesy Carlos Osorio, AP Photo.

The GM Renaissance Center in Detroit, Michigan. Carlos Osorio, AP Photo.

Recent disclosures about the ignition switch defect in millions of General Motors cars–and the company’s early and secret knowledge of the hazard–are disturbing by themselves. But they are also an eerie echo of the terrible carnage from an earlier, even bigger safety scandal involving millions of fire-prone GM pickup trucks. Thanks to a bailout from American taxpayers, GM emerged from bankruptcy and has rebounded from financial failure while boasting of its new leadership and culture. But taken together, the ignition switch and pickup scandals suggest a company that has remained morally dim somewhere near its core.

In the early 1970s, GM was vying with Ford and Dodge for dominance of the market for full-size pickup trucks. To top its rivals, GM decided to offer 40 gallons of fuel capacity, which it could only do through an unconscionably reckless design. Twin 20-gallon tanks were mounted on the flanks of the trucks, hanging like explosive targets nearly five feet long outside the trucks’ protective frames and vulnerable to puncture in side-impact crashes. GM produced 9 million pickups with the side-saddle tank design from 1973 to 1987. More than 750 people have burned to death in collisions involving these trucks, while countless others suffered agonizing and disfiguring burns.

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As a trial lawyer, I handled 36 of these cases and personally investigated dozens more. The fuel-tank design was, and remains, the most deadly of any American automobile design defect. GM never admitted that it was a defect, even though it has paid out well over $500 million in settlements with victims.

The ignition defect in some of GM’s small cars — which can result in the engine abruptly shutting down, disabling the power steering, brakes and airbags — is linked to at least 13 fatalities. Like the fuel-tank design, it appears to be a defect that is distinct with GM models. Other vehicles have reported air bag problems, but not as a consequence of such a simple problem as ignition contact failure.

Joe McCray 2011

Joe McCray

There are other similarities as well. In both cases, safety defects were not acknowledged by the company nor discovered by regulators, but exposed through lawsuits on behalf of injured motorists and bereaved families.

More outrageous, evidence in both cases has shown that GM engineers and executives were aware of the dangers for many years but continued to produce vehicles with the defective designs.

In fact, in 1994, when Transportation Secretary Federico Pena announced the conclusions of an investigation of the pickup trucks, they included the following:

“ …of critical importance in this matter, is the evidence that GM was aware, possibly as early as the mid-1970’s but certainly by the early-1980’s, that this design made these trucks more vulnerable and that fatalities from side-impact fires were occurring. However, GM chose not to alter the design for 15 years.”

At the time, millions of the trucks were still on the road, and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration appeared poised to order a recall. However, under enormous pressure from GM and its congressional allies, transportation officials backed off a recall and let GM escape with a payment of $51 million for safety programs.

In contrast, in the ignition switch case, GM has recalled millions of Cobalts and other small cars. There is also  another stark distinction between the two cases: At the time of GM’s bankruptcy filing, the truck defect was known and the claims that had been made were disclosed, as well as the existence of likely claims. But the ignition defect existed and claims arose before and during the bankruptcy, yet weren’t disclosed in bankruptcy filings. For that, GM could be vulnerable to charges of fraud, and that should shake loose the smugness on GM’s executive floors. Along with  endangering motorists, GM has betrayed the taxpayers. Let’s see if the company is held accountable this time.

Joe McCray, a retired San Francisco trial lawyer, is working on a memoir about the GM pickup cases.


 

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2 comments to “GM Ignition Switch Scandal Echoes Infamous Fire-Prone Pickups Case”

  1. Mark

    The above article is a perfect example of how capitalism without GOVERNMENT REGULATION, (and in some cases much needed strict government regulation), has been working against the consumer, particularly the American Consumer for some time now. And increasingly against the American Consumer all in the name of profits to the extent of UNJUSTIFIABLE greed.
    Whats a few, or certainly MANY MORE than a few Dead Americans and the devestation such a loss means to the loved ones of those unnecesarily killed (more accurately murdered) not to mention the displacement of their lives as they know it in exchange for General Maoters bottom line for their company and investors.
    Decisions such as the above without a doubt kill people (not juist Americans.. also other men, women, children and pedestrians throughout the world) while knowingly pressing forward with these death causing practices only serve to underscore the truth. Capitalism not kept in regulatory check defines the darkest side of Business
    Clearly all those who have puchased GM vehicles and their steadfast appreciation and financial support throughout the last century for the General Moters Company means without a doubt GM surely would have never existed without this suipport of the people, (American people first, of course.) This fact is undeniable proof for the need of more critically necessary safety regulation to be passed by congress.
    THE ABOVE SITUATION WITH GENERAL MOTORS CAN BE FIXED REGARDLESS OF THE PRICE TAG. THE RESULTING AND VERY PRICELESS PAYOFF FOR THESE PEOPLE OF ALL WALKS OF LIFE WHO WILL OTHERWISE DIE SHALL RESULT IN EACH AND EVERY ONE OF THEM NOT LOSING THIER RIGHT THEY HAVE TO LIVE LIFE, INSTEAD OF BEING CHEATED OUT OF THEIR LIFE AS A DIRECT RESULT DUE TO THE INTENTFULL NEGLEGENCE OF GM AS A RESULT OF NOTHING OTHER THAN GREED.
    ADDITIONALLY, IF GM DOES NOT PROMPTLY FIX THEIR SCREW-UP, LET US NOT FORGET, DIMINISH OR IGNORE WHAT WILL CERTAINLY BE THE SECOND PHASE OF DEVESTATION TO THE LIVES OF THEIR FAMILY MEMBERS, LOVED ONES AND FRIENDS AS A RESULT OF THOSE WHO HAVE AND WILL CONTINUE TO PERISH DO TO THE FINANCIAL GREED OF GM WHICH WILL, WITHOUT ANY DOUBT, OCCUR AS A RESULT OF THE TRAUMA CAUSED BY THESE UNNECESSARY DEATHS. OVERALL DISRUPTION AND DISPLACEMENT OF THE LIVES OF THOSE CLOSE TO THE PERISHED. ALL THE ABOVE DOES TRULY DOES NOT NEED TO OCCUR IF GM DECIDES TO MAKE THE INVESTMENT AND FIX THEIR OWN MAN MADE ERROR, WHICH HAS YET TO BE FIXED !!!
    Why do our politicians NOT get involved to protect the American People? And why are the Judicial Systems not protecting the American People in this matter? (State and more important our Federal Judicial System [Department of Justice?]
    The American taxpayer saved General Moters. We are the American Taxpayers, we saved General Moters from the landfill, and now GM is complaining the cost to fix their problem is NOT WORTH saving Americans’ lives and the fallout all those lives who Will perish have touched.
    Mark Ryan
    Orland Hills, IL

  2. Joe McCray

    Recent news reports ( NYT, April 18) have GM successfully defending a petition for an order requiring the company to notify owners of cars with the defective ignitions to park those cars as being too dangerous to drive. Unfortunately, a Federal District judge in Corpus Christi declined, holding that the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration was better suited to deal with such a question. That NHTSA has no statutory authority to issue such an order apparently escaped the attention of the judge. In any case, this sort of resistance is nothing new in GM’s recent history.
    GM’s disdain for the actual safety of its customers was manifest in the pickup cases when in 1994, in spite of an ordered recall, the company instead chose to pay millions to fund a never-realized safety design project. That left people using these vehicles out there vulnerable to a fiery death or burn injury. In fact, the incidents of pickup fatal fires continue as I write this.
    There is, I think, an attitude developed within the GM culture that easily shifts the risk of death or injury from the maker of a flawed product to the user. The company will not be put to such great expense or trouble to assure that its mistake will not continue to kill or injure. The recall, GM officials complain, has already cost billions and further steps would cost more billions.
    In the pickup litigation, a memorandum written by an engineer by the name of Ivey (whose first name I no longer recall) surfaced during discovery in one of my cases. Ivey was employed as an engineer in what was then the Pontiac Division of the Company and that was the division that had been tasked with the responsibility for fuel system integrity in all GM products. The memorandum was about a study conducted by Ivey and others within Pontiac which concluded that the cost of the repair of a fuel system defect had to be balanced by the cost of defending wrongful death lawsuits – at some point it is cheaper to defend the lawsuits. Among lawyers involved in the pickup litigation at the time, this memo was dubbed the “let ‘em burn” analysis.
    Deciding, as the company apparently has, to recall and fix cars with defective ignitions, but to do nothing more notwithstanding the long period needed to arrange for repairs, is very similar to the “let ‘em burn” attitude of the Ivey memorandum. The company refuses to take responsibility for whatever happens if you drive your car to a job you have to have, to classes for a degree or certification that means everything in your life, take your kids to school, etc. In due time, the company will provide a fix, but in the meantime, it will not discourage your use of the car.
    I suppose the ignition program is a step better than that experienced by the pickup owners, but it nonetheless is a program adapted to the world of GM’s corporate culture of disdain. Apparently, the new CEO of GM, Mary Barra, has declared that she would allow her son to drive one of these defective cars – thereby somehow endorsing their safety. Of course, the declaration is ridiculous as evidence of anything except the company’s desperation. Who is going to call her on it? If these cars are defective, which they are undoubtedly are, then she is not going to let her son drive one unrepaired.
    Grandstanding is not a substitute for corporate responsibility.

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