NHTSA’s Message to the Defense: Call Us Before We Call You

This week, while heads were rolling out the doors of the RenCen (GM headquarters) in downtown Detroit, the Chief Counsel of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration was laying down the law for defense lawyers at a Chicago legal conference.

Amid the presentations at the American Conference Institute’s 7th Annual Summit on Defending & Managing Automotive Product Liability Litigation devoted to defeating class-actions, the liability of autonomous cars and one of our personal faves –tire aging (with a shout-out to SRS’ Sean Kane!), was a warning from the government.

First, Chief Counsel O. Kevin Vincent lulled them with a feel-good “rah-rah-ree” paean to industry. And then, he made the hair on the back of their necks rise: A manufacturer’s obligation to report a defect within five days of its discovery is the law, and after a long hiatus from doing its job, NHTSA intended to take “an aggressive stance” in enforcing it.

The first offense line in the discovery of a defect was not the Office of Defects Investigation, Vincent said. It was the manufacturers themselves.

“We don’t have analysts, but your clients do. You all have ability to find these defects,” he said.

A manufacturer cannot delay a defect finding, while a safety problem meanders through an internal process involving multiple committees. It cannot hide its knowledge behind a wall of attorney work product and attorney-client privilege. It cannot wait until it’s gotten the supply chain ready to implement the recall.

And it better not wait until after it settles a plaintiff’s case for big bucks. The TREAD Act obligated NHTSA to “follow up on civil litigation that sends up red flags,” he said.  And they’d be looking for signs of foot-dragging in large civil litigation settlements. Not right away, certainly. Civil actions take years, he said. (This gives the safety problem plenty of time to fester.) How much of a settlement was enough to catch NHTSA’s attention? Vincent wouldn’t name a figure.

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 GM Hearings – Our Take

Missouri Senator Claire McCaskill opened the second day of hearings into the General Motors ignition switch defect and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s response to the issue by forging the strongest ties yet between the revelations that GM had hidden the defect for years and the civil litigation system.

McCaskill repeatedly (along with other U.S. senators and representatives yesterday and today) acknowledged the public debt to Lance Cooper, the Marietta, Georgia lawyer who represents the family of Brooke Melton, the 29-year-old woman who died in 2010 when the ignition module of 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, and Melton died of her injuries in the crash. Cooper’s dogged pursuit of GM materials through the discovery process showed that GM knew about the problems for years before launching a recall that only covered some of the affected models.

The ensuing avalanche of press led to a larger recall, and a government probe, and the April hearings.

But before the crush began, Cooper formally requested that NHTSA open a Timeliness Query, based on everything he had learned. And, it’s a good thing that McCaskill gave Cooper some credit, because to this day, NHTSA has not acknowledged his letter in any way. Not a phone call, not an email, not a letter. The bubble.

GM and NHTSA’s "Magic Formula"

Tomorrow, the heads and NHTSA and GM will head into the House committee for a three-Bromo-seltzer morning on the topic of: What Did You Know and When Did You Know It?

We, at The Safety Record, are most interested in understanding why NHTSA declined to investigate the defective ignition modules in early model year Chevy Cobalts and other models, after two Special Crash Investigations, 29 complaints, four deaths and the considered opinion of Defects Assessment Division (DAD) Chief.

According to a briefing report prepared by Majority Staff of the U.S. House Committee on Energy and Commerce’s Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations, the decision point for the agency was the fall of 2007:

In September of that year, the DAD Chief “emailed other ODI officials and proposed an investigation of “frontal airbag nondeployment in the 2003-2006 Chevrolet Cobalt/Saturn Ion.” The Chief of the Defects Assessment Division went on to state that the “issue was promoted by a pattern of reported non-deployments in VOQ [Vehicle Owners’ Questionnaire] complaints that was first observed in early 2005. Since that time, [the Defects Assessment Division] has followed up on the complaints, enlisted the support of NCSA’s Special Crash Investigations (SCI) team, discussed the matter with GM, and received a related EWD Referral. Notwithstanding GM’s indications that they see no specific problem pattern, DAD perceives a pattern of non-deployments in these vehicles that does not exist in their peers.”

Two months later, an “ODI IE panel reviewed the proposal to open an investigation into non-deployment of airbags in 2003-2006 Cobalts and Ions. A PowerPoint presentation prepared by the DAD and dated November 17, 2007, states that its review was prompted by 29 Complaints, 4 fatal crashes, and 14 field reports. During a briefing with Committee staff, ODI officials explained that the panel did not identify any discernible trend and decided not to pursue a more formal investigation.”

The Safety Record has long observed that we can find no “discernible trend” in NHTSA’s investigation decisions. In a March 8, 2014 New York Times story on the GM debacle ODI Chief Frank Borris said that that calls are made by “really well-seasoned automotive engineers who leverage a lot of technology and lean on past precedent about when to open, when to close, and when to push for a recall. It’s no magic formula.”

Take out the word “magic,” and for once, we agree with Frank.

In February, Safety Research & Strategies submitted comments to NHTSA’s 2014-2018 Strategic Plan docket pointing out this perennial problem, well-documented in a series of Office of Inspector General reports going back to 2002:

- NHTSA uses an unstructured process for determining defects and inconsistent or nonexistent criteria for initiating defect investigations.

- NHTSA makes poor use of available data and refuses to consider information from sources outside the agency or the manufacturer.

- NHTSA focuses on defects that are easily and inexpensively remedied, frequently ignoring more complicated and dangerous defects.

That GM Loaner May Not be Safer

Last week, General Motors attempted to pour oil on its troubled waters with an offer of free loaner cars for consumers awaiting a fix for the wandering ignition defect that is linked to at least 13 deaths. But, Consumers for Auto Reliability and Safety (CARS) says that a loaner may be no safer – as long as automobile dealers are permitted to put customers in vehicles that may be under recall, but unremedied.

“We are very concerned for customers who go to GM dealers expecting a safer loaner car and that might not be what they get,” says Rosemary Shahan, CARS president.

This issue has been simmering on the Congressional back-burner since last May, after a California jury awarded $15 million to the parents of two sisters who died in an Enterprise Rent-A-Car 2004 PT Cruiser on October 7, 2004. The driver of the truck they hit testified that he could see smoke pouring from the PT Cruiser’s engine compartment just before it veered into the southbound lanes of Highway 101 in Monterey County, crashing into his 18-wheeled Freightliner tractor trailer. A month earlier, Chrysler had recalled 439,000 2001-2004 PT Cruiser and the 2005 PT Cruiser Convertible for a power steering hose that could rub against the transaxle differential cover, eventually resulting in a steering fluid leak and an underhood fire. Despite the recall notice, Enterprise had rented the PT Cruiser that crashed to three other customers before the Houcks. On the day of the crash, the PT Cruiser was the only vehicle available and Enterprise employees offered it to Raechel and Jacqueline Houck as a free upgrade.

Automobile dealers are prohibited from selling a new recalled vehicle that has not yet had the remedy implemented, but there is no such prohibition against renting or loaning out a recalled vehicle that has not had the fix, or selling a used unremedied vehicle.

The Raechel and Jacqueline Houck Safe Rental Car Act of 2013 was sponsored by Democratic Sens. Charles E. Schumer (D-NY), Barbara Boxer (D-CA), and Claire McCaskill (D-MO) and Republican Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-AK), and supported by the car rental companies. The bill, S921, was filed in May and was unanimously passed by the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation, but it has advanced no further. CARS is lobbying for the bill and a similar one in the California legislature. SB 686 prohibits dealers from loaning, renting, leasing or otherwise transferring ownership of recalled used vehicles to consumers. But in both cases, the auto dealers have demanded a carve-out for loaners, because, as lobbyists testified they “have no way to know” if a vehicle has been recalled.

“The dealers and the manufacturers are blocking it and can’t even get out of the Senate,” Shahan said. “They’ve testified that they don’t want to pay for the down time, because a recalled vehicle could be out for weeks. They don’t want to lose the revenue, they’d rather put their customers at risk.”

Brass Ones

Government Motors - I mean - General Motors is doubling down on 363. That's the magical section of the Chapter 11 bankruptcy code that allows filers to keep the good stuff and discard all the ick - one of the key pieces being liability for harm caused by defective products.