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.

Markey Calls for NHTSA Transparency

Documents released Wednesday by Massachusetts Senator Edward Markey show that Wisconsin State Police came up with the same two-and-two as NHTSA’s Special Crash Investigation team during its 2007 investigation of a 2005 Chevy Cobalt crash that led to two deaths.  Too bad neither NHTSA nor GM thought they added up to four.

On October 24, 2006, Megan Ungar-Kerns, 17, was at the wheel of her 2005 Cobalt, returning from a trip to Walmart on a rural Wisconsin highway, when her vehicle suddenly drifted off the roadway at about 60 mph. The Cobalt hit a raised driveway and sailed through the air about 60 feet, before striking a telephone pole and two trees. The trio was not wearing their seatbelts and no airbags deployed. Natasha Weigel, 18, and Amy Lynn Radebaker died of their injuries. Ungar-Kerns survived with permanent injuries.

A crash investigation report issued by the Wisconsin State Police in February, noted the October 2006 GM Technical Service Bulletin about inadvertent power loss due to the ignition switch moving from the run to accessory position. They determined no other cause of the crash:

“The two front seat airbags did not deploy. It appears that the ignition switch had somehow been turned from the run position to accessory prior to the collision with the trees,” the report stated.

Markey released it and a few other documents that GM submitted to NHTSA, as part of the Death Investigation (DI), during a transportation appropriations hearing held by the Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation. DOT Secretary Anthony Foxx was the sole witness. The report didn’t add much new to the known narrative, but spotlighted legislation he has sponsored with Connecticut Senator Richard Blumenthal requiring manufacturers to submit more detailed information to NHTSA in the event of a fatal crash.

The Early Warning Reporting System Improvement Act “would require NHTSA make the information it receives from auto manufacturers publicly available in a searchable, user-friendly format so that consumers and independent safety experts can evaluate potential safety defects themselves,” according to a Markey news release.

Don’t Settle, NHTSA

Yesterday, the agency sent General Motors an extraordinary 27-page Special Order compelling the automaker to answer 107 questions about an ignition defect in the 2005-2007 Chevy Cobalt and six other models that claimed at least 13 lives and injured at least 31.

Retired NHTSA senior enforcement lawyer Alan Kam said that he’d never seen anything like it.

We are encouraged by NHTSA’s aggressive and swift action, and we are hoping and wishing and praying for actual enforcement follow-through that benefits and protects consumers, rather than merely burnishes the agency’s image.

We all know – including GM – that a big, fat fine is in their future for failing to launch a recall within five days of discovering a defect, as Marietta, Ga. attorney Lance Cooper found out. Cooper obtained internal documents during the discovery phase of a lawsuit on behalf of the family of the late Brooke Melton, showing that GM engineers discovered in 2004 that the ignition of the 2005 Cobalt could wander from the run to off or accessory position while the vehicle is underway. 

GM Folds, Where's the Fine?

On the First Day, attorney Lance Cooper called GM out on its recall of the 2005-2007 Chevy Cobalt and Pontiac G5 for an ignition switch problem that, the automaker announced, was linked to six deaths.

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Another Secret Chevy Volt Investigation?

One word journalists like to use in headlines about the all-electric Chevy Volt is “shock” – as in “Electric Shock: Is GM Really Losing $49,000 on Every Volt Sale?” and “Chevy Volt Continues to Shock and Awe After a Week on the Road” and “Chevrolet Volt: Electric sedan sends shock waves through auto industry.”

An electric vehicle is going to invite those metaphors, right? But three months ago, a driver from California made a complaint to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration that was literally shocking. On December 1, the driver received what was described as a significant electric shock from the gear shifter:

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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.

SRS Requests GM Brand Cars and asks NHTSA to Change NCAP Designations for Vehicles with Deleted "Standard" Side Airbags

Safety Research & Strategies continuing investigation into the "fleet delete" option that allowed GM fleet buyers to purchase vehicles without "standard" side curtain airbags reveals that bagless cars are still being sold to the public as having the feature. (SRS Investigation)

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