GM’s first missed sign of fatal flaw was over a decade ago

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In my career, I’ve handled several auto defect cases but I’ve never seen one that had this many glaring deficiencies as what has been going on in Detroit for the past 11 years.  What is more tragic is this attitude of incompetence, nonchalance and ineffectiveness which got them nowhere except for causing many deaths. . According to the report on GM’s internal investigation, the first death linked to faulty ignition switches happened more than a decade before the automaker recalled them.  The death toll was two by the time GM began building the Chevrolet Cobalt in the fall of 2004 and three when a top engineer on the Cobalt program decided in early 2005 not to improve ignition switches because of the cost and time required. The crashes were among the earliest signs missed by GM in its failure to recognize that the ignition switch contained a fatal defect and to begin treating the matter as more than a mere inconvenience. These three people died when 2004 Saturn Ion sedans equipped with the same switch crashed head-on into roadside obstacles but the airbags failed to deploy. Several years later, GM concluded that at least one of the victims would have survived if her airbag had worked properly. The first of the crashes happened in œlate 2003,at least eight months before any of those previously known. The government’s traffic-fatality database lists only one fatal crash in 2003 involving any Saturn vehicle from the 2004 model year, in which an Ion drove off a residential street outside Miami and into a building. The 19-year-old woman identified by Automotive News as the driver died after 17 days in a hospital, during which she accumulated nearly $300,000 in medical bills that went unpaid, according to public records. Based on available data, the Miami incident fits the criteria that GM used to identify whether fatal crashes are linked to the defect: cars going off-road, where bumps or jarring terrain may have helped jostle the ignition out of the œrun position, followed by a frontal crash in which the airbags didn’t deploy despite indications that they probably should have.  But it’s unclear whether the Miami death is among the 13 that GM has linked to the recall. The only fatal Ion crash in 2003 that GM reported to regulators is listed as occurring in Connecticut, two weeks after the Miami crash. No such incident appears in either the federal Fatality Analysis Reporting System database or Connecticut’s traffic-crash database. Lawyer warns of pattern The following year, two people died in similar, single-vehicle, off-road crashes. In July of that year, an Ion jumped a curb in Visalia, Calif., hitting a utility pole and killing the driver. In November, another Ion drove off the side of a rural road in Texas, crashing into a tree and killing the front passenger while injuring the driver.  In those crashes, as in the Miami crash, the traffic-fatality database categorizes the point of impact as the center of the car’s front end and shows that each car was traveling at a speed experts say would normally trigger airbag deployment.  Both of the 2004 crashes perplexed GM engineers, but the company chose to settle the cases arising from them rather than act on the red flags they raised, the Valukas report shows.  After the family of the California victim, 37-year-old Shara Lynn Towne, sued GM in 2006, engineers noted that the car’s airbag sensing and diagnostic module did not record a crash, suggesting some type of power loss. A GM lawyer expressed concern that the damage to the car was œremarkably similar to what happens during a certain GM crash test in which airbags are meant to deploy.  This GM lawyer also handled two lawsuits related to the Texas crash. The GM engineer assigned to investigate it said he œhad never seen a situation like this and determined that the impact was œclearly severe enough to warrant deployment of the vehicle’s airbags, according to a January 2008 evaluation prepared by an outside law firm hired to defend the case. But despite making that determination, another GM engineer asserted in a March 2008 court filing that the airbags wouldn’t have made a difference and that the car wasn’t defective. Engineering study GM knew of at least one of the 2003 and 2004 deaths at the time it ended an internal inquiry into the ignition switches, but it doesn’t appear to have linked any of them to the ignition switch until much later. GM reported the November 2004 crash to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration through the agency’s Early Warning Reporting system less than two months after it happened, citing an allegation that the airbags did not work properly.  At the time GM submitted that report, its engineers already were studying why the ignition switch in the Chevrolet Cobalt was so flimsy that it could be inadvertently turned off when bumped by the driver’s knee. But in March 2005, after GM informed dealers of the problem through a routine technical service bulletin, Gary Altman, the program engineering manager for the Cobalt, ordered the Problem Resolution Tracking System inquiry closed œwith no action. Altman determined that the lead time required, estimated cost and effectiveness of all proposed solutions meant they did not represent œan acceptable business case, documents show.  Altman was among 15 employees dismissed by GM this week. ‘Basic design flaw’ At the same time that GM’s legal staff received its first clue about the airbag problem, an engineer driving an Ion flagged the car’s ignition as having a œbasic design flaw because the keys could hit the driver’s knee. A month after that, another engineer reported that he had accidentally turned the Ion off by bumping the ignition with his knee. But GM proceeded with plans to use the same switch in the Cobalt when production began that fall.  NHTSA’s acting administrator, David Friedman, has said it’s œlikely that the actual death toll from the defect is higher than 13. A Texas law firm representing relatives of four victims on GM’s list says it has evidence that the toll includes at least 60 deaths and nearly 300 injuries, 80 of which it describes as œcatastrophic.  But GM officials say they stand by their number, which was revised in March from 13 down to 12 and then back to 13 as the company discovered that one victim was counted twice and confirmed that a June 2013 death in Canada was connected. All of the other deaths linked to the faulty ignition switches occurred no later than 2009.

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