GM Defective Ignition Switch Death Toll Under Scrutiny
The Wall Street Journal reports that General Motors is facing growing pressure over its position that 13 people have died in accidents related to defective ignition switches installed in 2.6 million small cars.
“We believe it’s likely that more than 13 lives were lost,” said David Friedman, acting administrator of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. “GM knew about the safety defect, but did not act to protect Americans from that defect until this year. The families and friends of those lost in the crashes…deserve straight answers about what happened to their loved ones.”
The agency issued a statement on Friday questioning the auto maker’s count and on Tuesday attributed the doubts directly to Mr. Friedman.
GM on Tuesday didn’t directly address the dispute over the number of fatalities. On Friday, a GM spokesman said only 13 fatalities may be related to the defect.
Clarence Ditlow, the head of the Center for Auto Safety and a critic of GM and NHTSA’s handling of the recalls, said he expected that GM would increase the number of deaths to 50, although he said the figure is closer to 100. “My estimate is based on my reading of NHTSA’s own reports which show similar accidents where the air bags haven’t deployed,” he said. “It just makes sense the number would be higher.”
The debate over how many deaths are attributable to the ignition-switch defect, which could cause vehicles to stall and cut power to the steering and air bags, is critical to families of victims. Lawyers for plaintiffs in wrongful-death suits say many more people-some estimate several hundred-deserve compensation for injuries and lost lives caused by stalling cars and the delay in recalling them.
A full count of deaths is crucial to GM’s proposal to set up a fund to compensate victims of crashes that occurred before the auto maker’s 2009 bankruptcy.
GM’s tally has counted only deaths from front-impact accidents where an air bag didn’t deploy, the auto maker has told the Transportation Department. Plaintiffs’ lawyers say that if fatalities in other types of accidents caused by sudden stalling are added, the toll is much higher.
“GM has both civic and legal obligations in regard to this matter,” the auto maker said Tuesday. “It is why we have retained [compensation expert] Kenneth Feinberg to help us explore our options as we move through this recall process.”
Jonathan Michaels, a California lawyer who filed a wrongful-death lawsuit this month in federal court, said GM didn’t acknowledge the death of 20-year-old Benjamin Hair as being linked to the ignition switch.
Mr. Hair was killed when his Pontiac G5 went off the road in late 2009 and hit a tree on its side. Because it wasn’t a frontal collision, the car maker doesn’t include the accident in its 13 deaths linked to the flaw.
Mr. Michaels said the sudden loss of power steering and brakes would be enough to cause the accident. Other attorneys also are pursuing similar claims. All told, there could be dozens of additional deaths and injuries, they said.
“If you look at what they are doing, it is incredibly misleading. There is a total universe of accidents that occurred,” said Mr. Michaels, a principal at MLG Automotive Law in Newport Beach, Calif. “My sense is that it will be higher than 50.”
Plaintiffs’ lawyers said Brooke Melton, a 29-year-old who died in March 2010 when her 2005 Chevrolet Cobalt crashed, isn’t counted by GM as one of the 13 fatalities related to the ignition-switch defect. GM settled with Ms. Melton’s family after the family’s lawyer discovered that the ignition switch used in her car was different from the switches used in later models of the vehicle. That discovery was a turning point that ultimately led GM to begin recalling the cars this February.
“GM has never explained to me why” Ms. Melton isn’t considered as one of the fatalities, said Lance Cooper, the Georgia lawyer representing the Melton family. “It was not an air-bag accident. Brooke’s case was a loss of control case, resulting in a fatality.” Mr. Cooper is trying to reopen the case.
Mr. Cooper is fielding dozens of inquiries from people who were involved in accidents. He, and other attorneys, are interviewing potential litigants to see if their experience justifies bringing claims. Of key importance is whether the car involved in the accident still is available for inspection.
“I think the potential is for hundreds, based on what we have learned,” Mr. Cooper said. “We have been called on dozens of cases, many of which seem to have merit. I know in speaking with lawyers around the country, the number is going to go into the hundreds.”
GM hasn’t released the identities of the 13 victims in its tally.
NHTSA is telling families “whether or not their loved ones are in the number counted by GM,” said Mr. Friedman of the agency. NHTSA isn’t releasing the list to the public.
Amador Cortinas, 23, was killed in an October 2013 crash involving a 2005 Cobalt. His accident isn’t included in the unofficial toll linked to the switches, according to his mother, Rosie Cortinas. She is considering filing a wrongful-death lawsuit.
“My message to is to close your eyes and put yourself in my place, and think about if your child was gone and the emptiness you would feel,” Ms. Cortinas said in April before meeting with GM Chief Executive Mary Barra.
As part of its federally funded restructuring, GM gained legal protections against claims for accidents that occurred before its June 1, 2009 bankruptcy-court petition. But that won’t stop the litigation, said lawyers who have filed cases against the company. The court hasn’t made a decision. GM is liable for court judgments for all accidents that occurred after it exited bankruptcy protection on July 10, 2009.
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