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From Products Liability Law Daily, April 1, 2014

GM announces more recalls, testifies before House Oversight and Investigations Subcommittee

By Pamela C. Maloney, J.D.

Just one day before General Motors CEO Mary Barra was scheduled to testify before the House Energy and Commerce Committee’s Oversight and Investigations Subcommittee, which is looking into the GM ignition switch recall, GM announced that it is recalling more than 1.3 million vehicles that may experience a sudden loss of electric power steering. GM’s new recall comes after 2.6 million vehicles were recalled earlier this year for ignition-switch problems linked to 13 deaths, making the total number of vehicles affected nearly 4 million.

The purpose of the hearing, entitled “The GM Ignition Switch Recall: Why did it Take So Long?” is to investigate what GM and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) are doing and to find the facts and identify the problems that led to the January 2014 recall. In a prepared statement, Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Fred Upton (R-Mich) stated that documents produced to the committee showed that both GM and NHTSA received complaints and data about problems with both ignition switches and airbags in Chevy Cobalts going back at least 10 years.

Ms. Barra’s testimony. In a statement prepared as part of her testimony, Ms. Barra apologized to everyone affected by the recall and especially to the families and friends of those who lost their lives or were injured. She went on to describe GM’s response to the recall, assuring the Committee that although she could not explain why it took years for a safety defect to be announced,  GM will find out. To that end, Ms. Barra referenced GM’s recent appointment of a new vice president for Global Vehicle Safety, Jeff Boyer—a first for GM. Ms. Barra also testified that she asked former U.S. Attorney General Anton Valukas to conduct a thorough and unimpeded investigation of the actions of General Motors in this matter. Finally, Ms. Barra announced that GM has hired attorney Kenneth Feinberg to work “as a consultant to explore and evaluate options in its response to families of accident victims whose vehicles are being recalled for possible ignition switch defects.”  Feinberg is the attorney who helped navigate victim compensation issues in the wake of the September 11 attacks, the BP Deepwater Horizon oil disaster, and the Boston Marathon bombings.

Ms. Barra also explained the steps the company is taking to effectuate the recall. Specifically, GM (1) has commissioned two, and asked for a third, production line from supplier Delphi for new parts, which will begin flowing to dealers on schedule next week; (2) has enhanced customer call center staffing to ensure minimal wait times; and (3) is providing loaner and rental vehicles to concerned customers who drive one of the recalled vehicles

Ms. Barra wrapped up her prepared testimony by stressing how serious the company is about the way things will be handled at the new GM, keeping customers and their safety at the center of everything the company does. During questioning by committee members, Ms. Barra stressed that the new GM will make changes to parts based on safety, not on cost.  

Testimony by NHTSA’s Acting Chair. David Friedman, the Acting Administrator of NHTSA, outlined the agency’s three priorities in his statement before the Subcommittee. The agency’s first priority is the recall. Friedman stated that the agency needs to ensure that GM gets the vehicles fixed quickly and that it is doing all it can to keep consumers at risk informed and to identify all vehicles that may have a defective ignition switch. Second, NHTSA is pursuing an investigation into whether GM met its timeliness responsibilities as required by federal law and agency regulations to report and address the defect—“an investigation that will end with holding GM accountable if it failed in those responsibilities,” according to Friedman. Finally, the agency is examining the new facts and its efforts in this case to understand what took place and to determine how to continue to improve agency efforts in these matters. 

Friedman went on to outline the history of the agency’s efforts in investigating both the airbag non-deployment in GM vehicles and in monitoring frontal crashes involving GM Cobalts. Friedman stressed that at the time of its review of these incidents, it did not have the information that GM has since provided, including new evidence linking airbag non-deployment to faulty ignition switches. According to the statement, GM submitted information to NHTSA acknowledging the link between the ignition switch airbag non-deployment for the first time in February 2014.   For this reason, the agency has launched an aggressive investigation into the timing of GM’s recall.

MainStory: TopStory NHTSANews MotorVehiclesNews

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