The extent of General Motors’ (GM) response to an ignition defect that engineers first discovered as early as 2001 is the topic of investigations underway by Congress and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA). Information disclosed during litigation and in a timeline the automaker submitted to NHTSA reveals that GM waited about a decade before it took action to remedy this defect, which is linked to at least 12 deaths and 17 injuries going back to 2005, according to the automaker.
In February, GM announced that it was recalling more than 1.6 million vehicles in the U.S. and Canada spanning the 2003-2007 model years. The affected vehicles are: 2005-2007 Chevy Cobalt and Pontiac G5; 2006-2007 Chevrolet HHR and Pontiac Solstice, 2003-2007 Saturn Ion, and 2007 Saturn Sky vehicles. In addition, GM recalled the 2005-2006 Pursuit, sold in Canada.
The defect is a loose ignition switch that can move from the “run” position to the “accessory” or “off” position while the vehicle is underway. The module’s position exacerbates the problem – for example, it’s easy for the driver’s knee to make casual contact with a dangling key ring, and jog the ignition out of position. Drivers experience a sudden loss of power, including the function of the power steering and the antilock brakes. The movement from “run” to “accessory” or “off” also disables the airbags, leaving the driver and passenger unprotected in a crash. In its notification to NHTSA, GM described this defect as an ignition switch torque that does not meet the automaker’s specification:
If the torque performance is not to specification, and the key ring is carrying added weight or the vehicle goes off the road or experiences some other jarring event, the ignition switch may inadvertently be moved out of the “run” position. The timing of the key movement out of the “run” position, relative to the activation of the sensing algorithm of the crash event, may result in the airbags not deploying, increasing the potential for occupant injury in certain kinds of crashes.
Consumer complaints to NHTSA, however, indicate that the ignition can move under a variety of less extreme scenarios. In the Vehicle Owner Questionnaire database, drivers have described the ignition switch moving with “the slightest touch;” “trying to tilt the steering wheel;” or “hitting a bump.” GM is offering to replace the ignition switch.
A Timeline on the GM Recalls
According to a chronology General Motors submitted to NHTSA, engineers first discovered the problem in 2001, during pre-production development of the Ion. One internal report from the early 2000s indicated that the ignition switch problem had been identified, but resolved by a design change. A second report described a service technician’s experience of a sudden stall while driving, and the observation that the weight of the key ring had worn out the ignition switch.
The problem resurfaced in 2004 during a 2005 Chevy Cobalt test drive. Although the Cobalt was not yet on the market, GM engineers couldn’t come up with a cost-effective solution before the vehicle’s launch date, so the automaker left the issue unresolved. Consumers soon began complaining about loss-of-power episodes. In 2005 and 2006, GM tried to fix the problem by re-designing the key head from a “slotted” to a “hole” configuration, but it did not announce a recall.
Instead, GM settled for a Technical Service Bulletin (TSB), which only informed dealership service technicians about inadvertent turning of the key cylinder. The TSB covered the 2005-06 Chevrolet Cobalts, 2006 Chevrolet HHRs, 2005-06 Pontiac Pursuits, 2006 Pontiac Solstices, and 2003-06 Saturn Ions. Owners who complained received a re-designed key head which was supposed to keep the key ring from moving in the slot, and keep any dangling keys from hanging low enough to be jostled by the driver’s knee.
The remedy identified in the TSB did not resolve the issue. In 2006, GM changed the design of the Cobalt ignition switch, to be implemented in 2007 model year vehicles. In 2007, the link between the loose ignition switch and deadly crashes was established. NHTSA officials informed GM of a fatal crash that killed 16-year-old Amber Marie Rose of Maryland in July 2005. The investigators wanted to talk specifically about the failure of Ms. Rose’s airbag to deploy in a frontal collision. But they also told GM that diagnostic data showed that the car’s ignition was found in the “accessory” position after the crash.
This discovery touched off an internal investigation within GM that lasted six years. The company began to study frontal collisions in which the airbags did not deploy. It should be noted that the 12 deaths identified by GM are most likely an undercount, because no other types of crashes were studied. At least one other non-frontal, fatal crash, in which the ignition was found in the “Accessory” or “Off” position has been documented. Non-fatal injury crashes that may have been caused by the sudden loss of power have not been investigated by either GM or NHTSA.
Consumers continued to complain, but GM didn’t discover significant differences in the design of the switches in 2005 compared to 2010 vehicles – the Cobalt’s last model year — until 2012. In its timeline to NHTSA, GM maintained that its supplier, Delphi, made those changes. In 2013, GM decided to recall only the Cobalt and G5 vehicles.
On Feb. 7, 2014, GM announced a recall for 619,122 Chevy Cobalt and Pontiac G5 vehicles from the 2005-2007 model years. But it had not yet admitted to NHTSA its long-standing knowledge about the defect. USA Today published stories charging that documents disclosed in a civil lawsuit filed by Lance Cooper, an Atlanta area lawyer, involving a fatal crash tied to the faulty ignition switch traced the problem back to 2004. These highly publicized revelations compelled GM to add four more American models covering 748,024 vehicles to Recall 14V047, and submit a more complete history of its knowledge of the problem. Lance’s work in his case and his post-settlement revelations have been most helpful in exposing GM’s cover-up of a known safety defect.
NHTSA has opened a Timeliness Query (TQ14-001) to determine if General Motors violated a regulation requiring automakers to report to the agency within five days of determining that a defect exists, and issued a detailed Special Order to GM about the defect.
Source: Sean Kane
Safety Research and Strategies, Inc.
Our firm has filed the first of what will be a number of lawsuits against GM involving the recalled vehicles. We filed a wrongful death lawsuit on March 24 on behalf of the Estate of Aubrey Wallace Williams. The decedent, a 32-year-old mother of two, was fatally injured on Dec. 4, 2013, while driving her 2006 Chevrolet Cobalt on Alabama Highway 64 in Lauderdale County, Ala. While operating her Cobalt, the ignition switch failed resulting in a complete loss of power. This caused the vehicle to become uncontrollable, cross into the westbound lane and collide with an oncoming 18-wheeler log truck. Ms. Williams was killed instantly.
GM’s conduct is inexcusable. The automaker was fully aware of the safety issues the ignition switch would cause to its customers for well over a decade before instituting this recall. They deliberately chose to ignore fixes for the problem because of costs, exposing people like Ms. Williams to dangerous and fatal situations. GM’s cover-up of this safety hazard is as bad as we have seen. It will rival the conduct of Toyota in how that automaker dealt with its sudden acceleration safety issues. GM is guilty of a callous disregard for safety and for human life and must now be held totally accountable for the grief and misery it has caused.
Rick Morrison, Cole Portis and this writer from our firm, along with Tom McCutcheon with McCutcheon & Hamner, a Florence, Ala., firm, will handle this case. If you need more information on this case or the GM safety problems related to the vehicle defect involved, contact Rick Morrison at 800-898-2034 or by email at Rick.Morrison@beasleyallen.com.
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