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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.