Melton Family Charges GM with Fraud; Asks for Sanctions

The parents of Brooke Melton, who died in March 2010 crash caused by a well-known ignition switch defect, returned to a Georgia state court, charging General Motors with fraudulent concealment and perjury in the civil liability case that was settled in September. And, just for good measure, they’ve filed a sanctions motion, via their attorneys Lance Cooper and Jere Beasley for discovery abuse and spoliation of evidence.

The Melton case has unleashed a world of hurt on General Motors – an investigation by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, Congressional oversight, class action lawsuits and general opprobrium. The company knew for nearly a decade that a loose ignition switch in six models – including the 2005-2007 Cobalt – could move from the “Run” to “Accessory” or “Off” position, turning off the power steering, anti-lock brakes and disabling the airbags, before recalling 1.6 million vehicles in North America. At least 13 deaths have been linked to the defect. The decade-long narrative of what GM knew, when it knew it, how it responded to the problem – or not – included the revelation that one of the obstacles to pinpointing the defect was a design change to the ignition switch that GM originally blamed on the supplier, but no change in the part number – a huge No-No.

In the face of a document showing that the Cobalt's lead design engineer Ray DeGiorgio signed off on the new ignition switch without assigning a new part number, GM has since admitted that he may have lied under oath.

The Continuing Case of Takata’s Exploding Airbags

Last week, four Japanese automakers – Toyota, Nissan, Honda and Mazda – announced recalls of 3.4 million vehicles for “improperly pressurized” airbags made by Takata that could rupture, igniting fires or propelling metal fragments that could travel “upward toward the windshield or downward toward the front passenger's foot well.”

They forgot to mention that they could shoot straight out and hit you in the chest, as allegedly happened in 2009 to a Florida woman who owned a 2001 Honda Civic. And, they apparently forgot to mention that these airbags have been recalled over and over again since 2001.

In this latest campaign, Takata said that it only learned of the problem in 2011, after an alleged rupture of a passenger airbag inflator occurred in Puerto Rico. Certainly, it’s unlikely that 2011 was the first the supplier heard about this issue. There have been six recalls associated with Takata airbags that explode with too much force, spraying debris in their wake. This slow-moving rolling recall for manufacturing defects involving 13-year-old vehicles raises more questions than it answers. Why is Honda identifying a manufacturing process problem so long after these vehicles were produced?

The latest recall of 2000 to 2004 vehicles suggests an age degradation issue involving the propellant. Honda’s ever-changing explanations suggest that perhaps more than one manufacturing problem lies at the root of the inflator rupture problems.  A stroll through the recall documents also reveals Honda’s odd behavior – like recalling 830,000 vehicles to find 2,400 replacement modules. The depth of NHTSA’s involvement is also unknown. The agency began asking questions in 2009, without actually assigning the recall investigation an official Recall Query number. We suspect that the Recall Management Division has been keeping close company with Honda ever since.

Honda Inflator Ruptures Through the Years

2001: Recall 01V055

In February 2001, Isuzu reported in a Defect and Noncompliance Notice that it discovered three vehicles, a 2000 and 2001 Rodeo and an MY 2001 Honda Passport had passenger side front air bag inflator modules built with too much generant.

“In the event of a crash, the abnormal amount of generant could cause the airbag to burst. Occupants could be injured either as a result of debris or as a result of crash forces not counteracted by the air bag,” Isuzu said.

According to the defect report, the undisclosed supplier told the vehicle assembly plant that it had produced air bag units with incorrectly manufactured inflators in late January 2001. At the time, Isuzu said that it only knew of three defective vehicles outside its possession – identified by Isuzu 's undisclosed supplier using ”radiography images in the supplier's possession.”

So, it was a small, limited recall, since two of the vehicles were on the dealer’s lot, and only one – a Honda Passport – had been sold to a customer. 

When Occupant Detection Sensors Don't Make Sense?

On December 17, 2011, Hyundai settled, for an undisclosed sum, in a crash that wouldn’t and shouldn’t have caused a fatality but for a defective occupant seat sensor – a problem that may be more common – across many manufacturers – and more potentially deadly than realized.

On January 3, 2010, Donna Lynn Hopkins was a front-seat passenger in a 2008 Hyundai Accent, with her husband, Tom, at the wheel. As they approached an intersection on Highway 181 in Bexar County, Texas, another driver failed to yield the right of way. The Hyundai T-boned the other vehicle with sufficient force to deploy the airbags. But only the driver’s airbag inflated. The occupant seat sensor mat in the front passenger seat determined that, Donna Hopkins, a 165-pound woman, was actually a child, and turned off the airbag. Worse, Hyundai’s sensor strategy also turned off the seat belt pretensioner. Like some other manufacturers, Hyundai’s occupant sensor is designed so that the front passenger seat belt pretensioner fires only if the airbag is deployed. Mrs. Hopkins had none of the advanced safety features needed to adequately protect her in that crash, even though she was belted, and weighed 55 pounds more than the regulated cut-off for smart airbag deployment. Her husband, Tom, walked away from the crash; Donna Hopkins died.

Attorney Stephen Van Gaasbeck, who represented the Hopkins family, says that his research revealed many airbag non-deployment complaints for the Accent and its model twins. In fact, in May 2008, then-Senator Elizabeth Dole (R-NC) wrote to NHTSA on behalf of a constituent who complained about his 2006 Kia Rio. Kia is a Hyundai owned company. In his letter to Dole, the Mint Hill, NC owner wrote:

Bigger Bags, Better Glass

Forty years after automakers fought off regulations that would have actually tested rollover occupant protection, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has published a final ejection mitigation rule, which favors the installation of bigger and more longer-deploying  side airbags and takes a half-step forward on improving side glazing.

The rule establishes a new Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standard 226 Ejection Mitigation. FMVSS 226 applies to the side windows next to the first three rows of seats in motor vehicles with a gross vehicle weight rating of 10,000 pounds or less. The performance-based standard would institute a compliance test in which an impactor would be propelled from inside a test vehicle toward the windows. The ejection mitigation system would have to prevent the impactor – based on the mass imposed by a 50th percentile male’s upper torso on the window opening – from moving more than a specified distance beyond the plane of the window.  Each side window would be impacted at up to four locations around its perimeter at two time intervals following deployment, to ensure that the airbags remain deployed for the beginning and end stages of a rollover.

NHTSA Agrees to Correct Impala Star Ratings; GM, Enterprise Try to Allay Concerns over Deleted Airbags

REHOBOTH, MA – As Enterprise Rent-A-Car and General Motors scramble to correct the false advertising that claimed former fleet vehicles being sold used were equipped with “standard” side curtain airbags, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has agreed to correct the information on its consumer website.

Over a three-year period, GM had offered fleet buyers as a cost savings the option of deleting the standard side airbags in 2006-2008 Chevrolet Impalas and MY 2008-2009 Chevrolet Cobalt and Buick LaCrosse models. Last month, investigations by SRS and the Kansas City Star revealed that the troubled automaker and Enterprise, its biggest fleet customer and the nation’s largest used car seller, were re-selling these altered fleet vehicles – mostly the Impalas –  to retail consumers and advertised them as having the important safety feature.

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