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From Products Liability Law Daily, March 11, 2014

GM recall faces congressional investigation

By Joe Bichl

Hearings are expected to be held in the coming weeks by the House Energy and Commerce Committee into General Motors’ and the National Highway Traffic and Safety Administration’s response to consumer complaints related to problems with ignition switches in certain vehicles, according to an announcement by Committee Chairman Fred Upton (R-Mich.).

Background. General Motors had recently announced the recall of more than 1.3 million 2003-2007 model year vehicles due to an ignition switch defect that has reportedly killed 13 people and been linked to 31 frontal crashes. According to the initial GM recall notice, weight on the key ring and/or road conditions or some other jarring event may knock the ignition switch out of the “run” position, turning off the engine. If the key is not in the run position, the air bags may not deploy if the vehicle is involved in a crash, increasing the risk of injury, the company had warned.

GM aware of safety problem. Although the recalls were announced last month, GM reportedly knew about the safety problem for almost a decade. According to media reports, General Motors was aware in 2005 or earlier that the ignition switches in the 1,367,146 vehicles it recalled could inadvertently turn off and disable the air bags. A CBS News investigation revealed that GM knew about fatal accidents in Maryland and Wisconsin in 2005 and 2006 that were attributable to the safety problem and notified dealers but did not execute a voluntary recall of the vehicles.

Congressional hearings. In light of GM’s safety problems, the House Energy and Commerce Committee announced it will pursue answers relating to the complaints filed with NHTSA, the response by GM and NHTSA, and the eventual recalls. According to Rep. Upton, the committee will try to determine whether GM or NHTSA missed or overlooked something that could have “flagged these problems sooner.” And if so, he said, “we must learn how and why this happened.”

Taken in historical perspective, Upton remarked in a news release that it has been over a decade since the enactment of the Transportation Recall Enhancement, Accountability, and Documentation (or TREAD) Act, which was passed by Congress to enhance government regulators’ ability to protect against auto safety defects. The legislation was intended to improve communication between auto manufacturers and the federal government and to increase NHTSA’s ability to collect and analyze information about potential threats. With this in mind, the upcoming hearing will also seek a progress report on the TREAD Act’s implementation, according to Upton.

“Congress passed this bipartisan solution with the intention of exposing flaws and preventing accidents and fatalities. Yet, here we are over a decade later, faced with accidents and tragedies, and significant questions need to be answered,” he said.

GM retains legal representation. In the face of growing scrutiny into how the automaker has handled the recall, according to reports GM has hired Jenner & Block LLP Chairman Anton Valukas, a former U.S. attorney for the Northern District of Illinois. Valukas is expected to assist with the NHTSA inquiry, as well as run his own internal probe.

Earlier reporting urged. Meanwhile, Senator Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.) called on NHTSA last week to require motor vehicle manufacturers to provide detailed information to the agency when they first become aware of incidents involving fatalities. In a letter to NHTSA’s Acting Administrator David Friedman, Sen. Markey asked the agency to use its authority to require companies to submit accident reports and other documents to NHTSA’S public early warning reporting database when they become aware of fatalities involving their vehicles.

“The current Early Warning Reporting system is too little, too late,” Sen. Markey, a member of the Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee, said. “We need to overhaul the Early Warning Reporting system so that NHTSA is not looking at auto defects through a rearview mirror.”

NHTSA issues Special Order to GM. NHTSA, for its part, has issued a Special Order to General Motors seeking detailed information regarding the expanded recall. The Order includes questions highlighting the gaps in the chronology of events provided by the automaker and seeks to get a clearer understanding of what GM knew and when it knew it. 

The Order seeks detailed information regarding all of the vehicles and ignition parts involved in the recall. Additionally, the request seeks, among many other things, a detailed explanation of a statement by the president of GM’s North American Division that indicated that the company’s internal investigation had not been “as robust as it should have been.”

The Special Order also focuses on recent events, including executive meetings held in December 2013 and in January 2014 regarding which vehicles to recall. Specifically, it seeks to discover whether  any vehicles aside from the 2005-2007 Chevrolet Cobalt and 2007 Pontiac G5 were discussed during the December meeting and if any other vehicles other than the vehicles subject to the recall were discussed during the January meeting.

MainStory: TopStory NHTSANews ProductRecallsNews

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