On May 16, the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT), acting through the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), announced that General Motors (GM) has agreed to pay a $35 million civil penalty and to take part in what the agency described as “unprecedented oversight requirements.” NHTSA says this comes as a result of findings from the agency’s timeliness investigation regarding the Chevrolet Cobalt and the automaker’s failure to report a safety defect in the vehicle to the federal government in a timely manner. As we all know, this defect, among other things, resulted in the non-deployment of airbags in certain Chevrolet Cobalt and other GM models.
While this action represents the single highest civil penalty amount ever paid as a result of a NHTSA investigation of violations stemming from a recall, it’s also the maximum amount allowed under current law. None of this would have happened had it not been for Lance Cooper’s excellent work in the Melton lawsuit mentioned above. His work discovered the defect and the cover-up by GM. The recalls and now this fine have come as a result of the Melton lawsuit. Based on what we have learned about GM’s conduct and the massive harm the automaker caused, we consider the fine to be no more than a slap on the corporate wrist of the company.
As part of the agreement, set forth in a Consent Order signed by GM with NHTSA, the agency did order GM to make significant and wide-ranging internal changes to its review of safety-related issues in the United States. GM was also ordered to improve its ability to take into account the possible consequences of potential safety-related defects. GM will also pay additional civil penalties for failing to respond on time to the agency’s document demands during NHTSA’s investigation. U.S. Transportation Secretary Foxx had this to say:
Safety is our top priority, and today’s announcement puts all manufacturers on notice that they will be held accountable if they fail to quickly report and address safety-related defects. While we will continue to aggressively monitor GM’s efforts in this case, we also urge Congress to support our GROW AMERICA Act, which would increase the penalties we could levy in cases like this from $35 million to $300 million, sending an even stronger message that delays will not be tolerated.
Federal law requires all auto manufacturers to notify NHTSA within five business days of determining that a safety-related defect exists or that a vehicle is not in compliance with federal motor vehicle safety standards and to promptly conduct a recall. GM admits in the Consent Order that it failed to do so. This admission will be most helpful in the massive civil litigation involving GM and the defect it covered up for more than a decade.
The provisions of the Consent Order will be immediately enforceable in federal court if GM does not fully comply. Hopefully, the Consent Order will hold GM accountable, push the automaker to make needed institutional change, and make sure that replacement parts are produced quickly and recalled vehicles are repaired promptly. NHTSA Acting Administrator David Friedman added these comments:
No excuse, process, or organizational structure will be allowed to stand in the way of any company meeting their obligation to quickly find and fix safety issues in a vehicle. It’s critical to the safety of the driving public that manufacturers promptly report and remedy safety-related defects that have the potential to lead to deaths or injuries on our nation’s highways.
GM agreed in the Consent Order to provide NHTSA with full access to the results of GM’s internal investigation into this recall, to take steps to ensure its employees report safety-related concerns to management, and to speed up the process for GM to decide whether to recall vehicles. The Consent Order also requires GM to notify NHTSA of changes to its schedule for completing production of repair parts by October 4. GM must also take steps to maximize the number of vehicle owners who bring in their vehicles for repair, including targeted outreach to non-English speakers, maintaining up-to-date information on its website, and engaging with vehicle owners through the media. The Consent Order requires GM to submit reports and meet with NHTSA so that the agency may monitor the progress of GM’s recall and other actions required by the consent order.
Both in 2007 and again in 2010, NHTSA reviewed data related to the non-deployment of airbags in certain Chevy Cobalt models, but each time the agency determined that it lacked the data necessary to open a formal investigation. However, on Feb. 7, 2014, as a direct result of the Melton lawsuit mentioned above, GM announced it would recall certain model vehicles for a defect where the vehicle’s ignition switch may unintentionally move out of the “run” position that could result in the air bag not deploying in the event of a crash. GM had failed to advise NHTSA of this defect at the time of the agency’s earlier reviews.
After review and consultation by NHTSA, GM twice expanded the recall to include a total of 2,190,934 vehicles in the United States. The GM recall covers the 2005-2010 Chevrolet Cobalt, 2007-2010 Pontiac G5, 2003-2007 Saturn Ion, 2006-2011 Chevrolet HHR, 2006-2010 Pontiac Solstice and 2007-2010 Saturn Sky vehicles.
Source: NHTSA News Release
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