The General Motors compensation fund has determined that 107 death claims related to the automaker’s defective ignition switches are eligible for compensation. The toll far exceeds the 13 victims that GM had claimed last year were the only known fatalities linked to ignitions that could suddenly cut off engine power and disable airbags. This number of deaths comes as no surprise to the lawyers in our firm who have been working on the GM litigation. As we all know, the defective ignition switch problems were first uncovered in the Melton case in Georgia.
The ignition-switch crisis is one of the deadliest automotive safety issues in American history. There were 270 people killed in Ford Explorers equipped with Firestone tires during the late 1990s and early 2000s. But while the Ford-Firestone accidents were obvious incidents of tire failures and sport utility vehicle rollovers, the ignition switch has gained more notoriety because the defect was hidden by GM for a decade before the automaker began recalling affected cars last year. The total number of recalls is now 2.6 million vehicles.
We are convinced, based on what all our lawyers have learned, that GM deliberately covered up the defect for years. The automaker clearly misled congress as to the magnitude of switch-related deaths in congressional hearings last year. The cover-up lasted for more than a decade and GM can’t be allowed to get away with a decade of deception. I believe that NHTSA has to share part of the blame for allowing GM to engage in a massive cover-up. The agency had enough information available from vehicle crashes to at least be suspicious that a problem of some kind existed.
The compensation fund is expected to complete its review of all claims by July. To his credit, Kenneth Feinberg’s standard for reviewing claims has been more lenient than those used by GM to determine whether the defect caused an accident. He and his staff are not using a legal standard. Nor is the fund using an engineering review of the claims being used, according to Camille Bires, the Deputy Manager of the Fund, a key person in the program.
As we reported previously, GM paid a $35 million fine to federal regulators for failing to report the defect in a timely manner. As we mentioned above, the company is still under investigation by the Justice Department for possible criminal charges and civil penalties. The switch crisis led to dozens of other recalls last year by GM, the nation’s largest automaker, for a wide range of vehicle defects. The company has spent about $3 billion overall on the recalls, including setting aside $600 million to compensate ignition-switch victims.
Ms. Biros said that many of the eligible death claims involve younger victims in their teens and early 20s. She said the fatalities involved passengers as well as drivers, including people sitting in the back seat of vehicles. Some of the claims were made for accidents that occurred after GM began recalling the small cars last February. But Ms. Biros said there was no precise number available for post-recall victims. At this juncture, I would give Mr. Feinberg and Ms. Biros high marks for their efforts in handling the compensation fund.
Source: New York Times
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