Why Civil Litigation Matters to Safety: GM Edition

If you want to know why civil litigation matters to safety, take these links over to USA Today and read James Healey’s fine coverage of General Motor’s crappy, nine-years-too late 2005 Cobalt and Pontiac G5 recall, and attorney Lance Cooper’s request to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration for a Timeliness Query investigation. (6 Killed in GM Cars with Faulty Ignition Switch; Lawsuit: GM Knew of Cobalt Ignition Problem; and Lawyer Asks Feds to Explain Recall Timing)  

After settling a lawsuit in which a 29-year-old woman died in crash caused by a defect known within GM since 2004, the automaker announced that it would recall a subset of vehicles plagued by ignition switches that wander from the run to the accessory or off position. These shifts  create an emergency situation while the vehicle is underway, disabling the airbags while cutting off the engine power, power brakes and power steering. The defect, which GM engineers discovered in 2004, before they began selling the 2005 Cobalt, was the central issue in Melton v General Motors.

Brooke Melton, 29, died in 2010 when the ignition switch in her 2005 Cobalt slipped into the accessory position as she drove along Highway 92 in Paulding County, Ga. Melton’s Cobalt skidded into another vehicle; she died of her injuries in the crash.

The incident was initially attributed to Melton simply losing control of her car on a rainy night. But the Melton family sought the counsel of attorney Lance Cooper, after facing a legal claim from the driver in the other vehicle. Cooper, a veteran of motor vehicle defect litigation, saw something that many lawyers would have overlooked and filed suit against GM.  The records he pried out of GM’s hands after 18 months of requests for production and a court order compelling the automaker to produce what it knew about the defect, revealed a long, sorry history. GM engineers had discovered the ignition switch problem during the Cobalt’s production stage, but the company sold them anyway. GM began to receive complaints about the problem almost immediately, and tried to make them go away with an October 2005 TSB covering the 2005 Cobalt and with a later TSB involving later model years of the Cobalt, the Pontiac G5, along with 2006-2007 Chevrolet HHR, the 2005-2006 Pontiac Pursuit in Canada; the 2006-2007 Pontiac Solstice; 2003-2007 Saturn Ion; and 2007 Saturn Sky. This “fix” – an ignition key cover that changed the design from a slot to a key hole – did not solve the problem.

Time to Call BS: Why Safety Groups Sued DOT Over Backover Rule Delay

Last week, a consortium of safety groups and advocates decided it had had enough of the delay tactics in publishing a final rule establishing a rear visibility standard and sued the Department of Transportation.

“We are going through the motions of trying to put pressure on the system to cough out the rule,” says attorney Henry Jasny of Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety. “We’ve got a new Secretary of Transportation, and to help him along we figured we’d get the court involved.”

The petitioners before the U.S. Court Of Appeals’ Second Circuit in New York includes three organizations – KidsAndCars, Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety and Consumers Union – and two New York residents who have backed over their children – Sue Auriemma of Manhasset and pediatrician Greg Gulbransen of Syosset. The 2008 Cameron Gulbransen Kids Transportation Safety Act was named for two-year old Cameron Gulbransen, who was killed when his father accidentally backed over him in the family’s driveway. It required the agency to issue a Final Rule amending Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standard (FMVSS) 111, the rearview mirror standard, to, for the first time, define what a driver sees in the rear when backing up to detect pedestrians immediately behind his or her vehicle. The law forced the agency to address a significant design flaw – especially in SUVs – of expanded blind zones caused by the vehicle’s height and bulk. Dramatic pictures from KidsAndCars shows as many as 62 children arrayed directly behind an SUV that would be unseen by driver checking the rearview mirrors.

[flashvideo file=video/KAC_62Children30.flv image="video/KAC_62Children30_Preview.jpg" /]

The original statutory deadline was February 28, 2011, but the Final Rule has been delayed four times, and now is on track to be completed four years after the deadline. In one of his last acts, former Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood sent another letter to Congress delaying the issuance of a Final Rule until January 2015. (The new Secretary of Transportation, former Charlotte, North Carolina Mayor Anthony Foxx, started in July.)

Slow Burn: Chevy Volt Fires

That DOT Secretary Ray LaHood is always yakking about transparency – at his confirmation hearing, at budget hearings, about airline fees, and business flight plans. During the U.S. House of Representative’s Toyota Unintended Acceleration hearings in February 2010, when Congressman Ed Markey asked the Secretary of Transportation:

“What do you think about the public in terms of them providing – being provided with more information regarding potential safety defects that automakers tell the department about even before an investigation is opened or a recall is announced?

LaHood replied: “Need for transparency.  The more information we can give the public, the better.”

Unless…..the defect is really bad, and the press will be on it like white on rice and it involves a major automaker, whose fortunes are tightly entwined with the government. Yes, we’re looking at you General Motors. (Or, as some would have it, Government Motors.)

“I don’t where I got the nerve, but it sure felt good.”

So says Christina Catalano, after her brief confrontation with Chrysler CEO Sergio Marcchione at a dinner yesterday night sponsored by Automotive News World Congress, as part of the North America International Auto Show in Detroit.

Catalano is the daughter of Linda Catalano who died on August 3, 2008.  The 55-year-old mother and grandmother had completed a garage sale and had left her home several blocks away to collect the remaining sale signs along the road.  She evidently stopped the vehicle along the roadway to pick up a sign.  She placed her vehicle into what she must have believed to be Park and opened the door and stepped out of the Chrysler Mini-Van to pick up her signs, with the engine running and the driver’s side door open.  The vehicle then “self-shifted” into reverse, knocking Catalano to the ground and dragging her underneath the left front tire, where it pinned her.

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.

Chrysler, GM Bankruptcies Concluded, Defect Victims Cheated

WASHINGTON, D.C. – The Obama administration’s drive-by bankruptcies have left the victims of defect-related crashes to eat their dust, but consumer advocates are turning to other strategies to force Chrysler and General Motors to do the right thing.

Consumers for Auto Reliability and Safety, along with Consumer Action, Center for Auto Safety, Center for Justice & Democracy, and National Consumers League, have petitioned the Federal Trade Commission to require labels informing buyers of a used Chrysler’s unique liabilities. The label they’ve suggested goes like this:

“WARNING    This vehicle was produced prior to the date when the Chrysler bankruptcy was approved. If you buy this vehicle and are injured or killed, even if your injuries were caused by the manufacturer, you or your survivors will not be able to recover your losses by taking action against the manufacturer. If your passengers are injured or killed, even if their injuries were caused by the manufacturer, they and their survivors will not be able to recover their losses by taking action against the manufacturer.”

Stick a Fork in It

Barring a successful appeal by some crash victims, the General Motors bankruptcy is a done deal. Over the Independence Day holiday weekend, Judge Robert E. Gerber of the federal bankruptcy court in Manhattan declared independence for General Motors from all previous liabilities. On Sunday, Gerber approved the sale of the automaker’s assets to a consortium consisting of the governments of the U.S. and Canada and a health trust owned by the United Auto Workers union. The parties were racing to beat the Obama administration’s clock of a bankruptcy and sale by Friday. The deal is expected to close on Thursday, after the judge’s four-day stay runs out.

GM's End Run Starts to Falter

Opponents of Chrysler and General Motors’ bid to play the get-out-of-liability-free card scored a partial victory Friday. GM agreed to amend the terms of its bankruptcy to assume liability for future death and injury claims. The deal was reportedly hammered out late Friday between the Treasury’s auto task force, GM and more than a dozen states attorneys general.

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