GM Ignition Switch Recall: A Safety and Public Relations Nightmare

GM ignition switch recallThe phrase “a reasonable amount of time” is a common one in the legal arena, often found in contracts to determine when parties should perform. What constitutes “reasonable time” is not easily definable and varies from case to case. In this case, however, no set definition is needed to know that the ten years it took for General Motors (GM) to recall 12.8 million vehicles due to life-threatening defects is not reasonable or timely in any sense of the words.

However, GM apparently would not approve of the use of the term “life-threatening.” In fact, according to USA Today, GM strictly forbid the use of such a descriptor by employees when discussing GM vehicles. “Life-threatening” was just one of 68 other outlawed adjectives, which included, but were not limited to, “words or phrases with a biblical connotation.” GM’s effort to side-step a public relations landmine actually assisted in the detonation of its current one.

When Dan Akerson, GM’s former CEO as of January, passed the torch to Mary Barra, he failed to inform her that the torch would be used to burn her at the stake before Congress. His convenient exit put Ms. Barra in the hot seat, leaving her to explain, among other things, why the ignition defect was deemed “too expensive” to fix when, in reality, the fix would have cost the company just 57 cents per vehicle. It would be difficult for a corporation currently worth 38 billion to convince any committee member that such a minute expenditure would have broken the bank.

Back before the spotlight on GM was as bright and incriminating as it is today, the company’s position was that it would not be liable for deaths or injuries related to the defects that took place prior to 2009. GM’s reasoning was that the U.S. Auto Bailout had left it with a clean slate, unencumbered by any liabilities to which it might have been subject prior to 2009. This sparked an outcry from the families of two Wisconsin girls who died back in 2006 when the ignition of their Chevrolet Cobalt inexplicably turned into the accessory (or “off”) position, leaving them without power steering, air bags, or power brakes. Mary Barra has since stated that GM has “civic responsibilities” to compensate the victims of “pre-bankruptcy crashes.”

The original number of deaths due to this ignition failure was 13, but GM reduced it to 12 once fact-finders determined that one instance had been mistakenly counted twice. Faced with this startling statistic, thousands of GM drivers expressed grave concern about whether it was still safe to operate their vehicles. GM’s response to its disquieted consumers came in the form of a document that was filed with the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), recommending that “customers only utilize the key, key ring, and key fob . . . that came with the vehicle.” The purpose of the recommendation was to help ensure that no added weight would risk the ignition turning off, but, in the public eye, it appeared that GM was simply shifting the burden of repair from itself to the consumer.

On Friday, May 16, 2014, GM agreed to pay the $35 million fine imposed upon it by the U.S. Transportation Department. $35 million was the maximum amount the government could levy against the automaker for GM’s decade-long failure to disclose. Prior to the settlement, however, The New York Times reported that Michael P. Millikin and the rest of GM’s legal department became the subject of an internal inquiry after allegations were made that they had scrambled to withhold damning information from the families of victims.

Most recently, GM appointed one of its former PR executives as the new senior vice president of global communications. Tony Cervone, who left GM for United Airlines back in 2009, is now being touted as the perfect person to pick up the pieces of this public relations nightmare. GM and its supplier of the ignition switches, Delphi, are currently “buying new machinery and equipment to make [replacement ignition switches] quickly.” For GM drivers who do not feel safe driving their recalled vehicles until the replacement parts come in, GM has promised loaner cars in the interim (while they last). There was also an offer GM extended to give owners $500 towards a new GM vehicle, though the offer ended on April 30.

What Does The GM Ignition Switch Recall Mean for You?

As for the future of General Motors, there are a couple of bills currently making their way through the legislative process that are worth mentioning. One, if enacted into law, would require companies like GM provide information on fatalities and injuries to the NHTSA, who would then be required to make that information available to the public in layman’s terms. A second would provide the NHTSA with greater supervision and raise fines for automakers who violate any of the new safety standards. Although there appeared to be cracks in GM’s infrastructure that welcomed weeds, but Mary Barra promises that GM will “emerge from this situation a stronger company.”

If you have dealt with injury or loss of a loved one due to a GM vehicle, consider contacting Attorney Group for a free consultation and to learn more about your legal rights.