GM Ignored Red Flags


April 18, 2014 / Vehicle Accidents

In February, GM recalled about 780,000 of its 2005-07 Chevrolet Cobalt vehicles. That was just a portion of the larger recall of more than 2.6 million vehicles that may have faulty ignition switches, allowing the ignition to easily be moved out of the “run” position and into the “auxiliary” position and causing loss of power, steering, braking, airbags and lighting. GM says it has linked 32 crashes and 13 deaths to the faulty ignition switches, but a new study commissioned by the Center for Auto Safety indicates the death toll could exceed 300.

Some folks from Indiana have been in recent news about the ignition switch problem.

One of the many lawsuits that have been lodged against GM by those who were injured in accidents allegedly caused by the vehicle’s sudden loss of power was filed by an Indiana woman, Samantha Zollman of Madison, on the Ohio River, and Josh Cull of Milton, across the river in Kentucky.

Samantha was a passenger in Josh’s 2006 Chevrolet Cobalt on Halloween of 2012. Josh was driving at the speed limit when the vehicle’s ignition switch suddenly moved from the “run” position to the “off” position, disabling the power steering and power brakes and causing the car to crash. Both Samantha and Josh were wearing seatbelts, but because the ignition malfunction also caused the airbags not to deploy, both were seriously injured when they hit the dashboard. Josh lost an eye and Samantha has undergone eight facial reconstruction surgeries so far.

GM faces a criminal investigation because it appears they knew about the faulty ignition switches in 2002 but waited until 2014 to make the recall. Indiana features in the historical timeline of the issue of what GM knew and when they knew it.

A Wisconsin crash caught the attention of federal investigators in November 2006. The 17-year-old driver had been operating a 2005 Chevy Cobalt on a dry two-lane road when the vehicle inexplicably became airborne, landed and hit a clump of trees. Neither the driver nor her two passengers were wearing seatbelts and the airbags did not deploy. The two passengers died and the driver was seriously injured.

Apparently NHTSA saw the flicker of a red flag, because they contracted out an SCI – special crash investigation – to a team at the Indiana University Transportation Research Center in Bloomington. Such teams are assigned the most in-depth and detailed level of crash investigation data collected by the federal government. The report’s summary states, “This crash is of special interest because the case vehicle was equipped with multiple Advanced Occupant Protection System (AOPS) features, including dual stage air bags that did not deploy, and the case vehicle’s front right passenger[15-year-old, female] sustained fatal injuries.”

The 26-page SCI report said the Cobalt’s ignition was in the “accessory” position when it crashed; in addition, the car’s black box data recorder showed that just before the car hit the trees, the engine was not running. That might explain the failure of the air bags to deploy, the report said.

But that wasn’t the only red flag in the Indiana University report. The report also noted that in 2005, GM sent its dealers a technical service bulletin titled “Information on Inadvertent Turning of the Key Cylinder, Loss of Electrical Systems.” They warned that it was possible for a driver to accidentally turn off the engine by bumping the ignition switch, especially if the key chain was heavy. A second memo went out in October of 2006, one month before the Wisconsin accident.

And the IU report waved yet another red flag, noting that investigators had analyzed NHTSA’s own database and found at least six complaints at that time from owners who said their cars had turned off and lost power when the keys were inadvertently touched.

GM has said it is protected from liability for claims related to incidents that occurred before the company’s bankruptcy in 2009. They have begun filing motions to stay in the recall-related lawsuits while they seek clarification from the bankruptcy court about the extent of that protection from liability and until a judicial panel on multidistrict litigation decides whether to consolidate the related lawsuits.

In the meantime, while GM tries to weasel out of paying claims to injured victims and mourning families, the company has placed two engineers on leave pending an investigation . . . and that’s PAID leave. Now that makes me see red.

Attorney Mike Stephenson

Attorney Mike StephensonMike Stephenson has 40 years of experience and is a trusted advisor to many individuals and companies. His current practice is dominated by civil litigation in state and federal courts. He focuses much of his time on handling catastrophic injuries caused by all types of accidents, including motor vehicle, trucking, workplace injuries, product liability, and fire, just to name a few. He also works extensively in construction accidents. [ Attorney Bio ]

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