Nearly two years ago, General Motors (GM) disclosed a secret to government regulators: millions of vehicles it manufactured during the past decade contained a defective ignition switch. These defective switches were incapable of holding the ignition key in place during normal vehicle operation. If the vehicle drove across bumpy terrain or if too many other items were attached to the driver’s keychain, the ignition key may unexpectedly rotate, turning the vehicle off.
The safety risks should have been obvious: when a vehicle’s ignition key rotates from the “RUN” to “OFF” position, electrical power is immediately disabled. Disabling the electrical power, in turn, causes the vehicle to lose power steering, power brakes, and — worst of all — airbag functionality.
Now imagine that all of this happens at highway speed. A driver is traveling 70 mph on a busy interstate and the key in the ignition unexpectedly rotates to the OFF position, killing the power. The vehicle instantly transforms into a fast-moving, uncontrollable cannonball. Without airbags. GM knew about the issue as early as 2002. It kept quiet to save money.
This week, GM will face the first of many trials pursued by individuals who say they were injured in accidents caused by the defective ignition switches that were part of the GM ignition switch recall. The first of these GM lawsuits is on behalf of Robert Scheuer. He is a 49-year-old postal carrier from Oklahoma, claims that his 2003 Saturn Ion careened off the highway one night and hit a tree. Although there was a front-end collision, the airbags did not deploy.
Thankfully, Mr. Scheuer lived. So many of GM’s victims did not. When GM initially disclosed the defect, it claimed that only 13 people had been killed in accidents caused by the ignition switch.
Ken Feinberg, who was hired by GM to resolve some of the most egregious claims, concluded that the ignition switches killed 124 and injured another 275. The true number of killed and injured is likely far higher, and Mr. Scheuer’s trial will be the first case to prove it.
General Motors Engaged in a Decades-Long Cover-Up
The public’s memory fades quickly and it is easy to forget just how bad GM’s conduct was. As far back as 2001, Ray DeGiorgio, one of GM’s head engineers, learned that the ignition switches did not meet GM’s own design specifications. Instead of redesigning the switch, DeGiorgio ordered them to be installed anyway.
Thousands of 2003 Saturn Ions went to market with a potentially deadly design defect. Surely GM fixed the switches before installing them in any other vehicle models, right? Wrong. Instead of redesigning the defective switches, GM proceeded to install them in millions of other mid-size vehicles, including the Chevrolet Cobalt, Chevrolet HHR, and Pontiac Solstice. There is evidence that similarly defective switches were installed in the Chevrolet Impala, Chevrolet Malibu and Pontiac Grand Am.
In all, GM has recalled more than 12 million vehicles because they contain defective ignition switches.
To escape its liability, GM has invoked the “one bad egg” defense, claiming that management had no idea DeGiorgio was installing bad switches in millions of its cars. The claim is contradicted by the evidence. GM’s internal records contain thousands of complaints lodged by customers during a 10-year period, concerned (some even panicked) that their vehicles unexpectedly lost power during normal operation.
What is more, between 2005 and 2014, GM issued multiple bulletins to its dealers informing them that vehicles manufactured with the defective switches were subject to “moving stalls,” wherein a customer’s automobile would lose power, power steering and power brakes. GM never sent a similar bulletin, or any warning for that matter, to its customers.
When injured drivers filed suit against GM, the company’s in-house lawyers pursued settlements that required the victims to maintain confidentiality. In one instance, GM sat silent while a driver was criminally prosecuted for crashing her vehicle and killing her boyfriend. GM had evidence that the crash was caused by the defective ignition switch, but it kept that evidence to itself.
More GM Lawsuit Ignition Switch Trials to Come
Mr. Scheuer’s trial will serve as the initial opportunity for the full truth of GM’s conduct to see the light of day. Hundreds more injured victims are waiting in line for the opportunity to try their case when Mr. Scheuer’s concludes.
It will probably take the courts years to untangle GM’s decade-long cover-up. The good news, however, is that GM’s victims will now begin to have their chance at justice.
Robin Greenwald, head of Weitz & Luxenberg’s Environmental, Toxic Tort, and Consumer Protection unit, serves as the court-appointed liaison counsel in the GM lawsuit ignition switch litigation.
If you are interested in more information about the ignition switch litigation, or if you or a loved one was injured in an accident that may have been caused by the ignition switch defect, we encourage you to contact our offices at 800-476-6070. Learn more about the GM ignition issue.