GM’s recall of more than 17 million vehicles for ignition-switch defects that can cause the affected vehicles’ electrical systems to shut off, disabling power-steering, power-brakes, and airbags, has been widely reported. So far, at least 13 deaths have been determined to have resulted from the defect, including one that occurred when the driver’s power shut off upon impact, preventing her airbag from deploying.
Some action has already been taken against GM for its management of this issue. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) has fined the corporation $35 million for its delay in turning over information that might have resulted in an earlier recall, and the Department of Justice (DOJ) has been reported to be collecting information in preparation for a possible criminal investigation of the matter.
How much did GM know about its ignition-switch defect and the dangers it posed before it issued its first recall, or even before it put the vehicles containing the defect on the market? A hearing to be held on July 17 by the Senate Subcommittee on Consumer Protection, Product Safety and Insurance—which will include questioning of officials from Delphi, the supplier of the defective switches—will tell us more. But we already know quite a bit from two earlier hearings by the U.S. House Oversight and Investigations Subcommittee and reports from other sources.
In 2001, a GM engineer reported that the switches failed to meet electrical engineering requirements. In February of 2002, the same engineer discussed the failure of the switches to also meet mechanical engineering requirements with Delphi, the supplier of the switches. Yet, in May of 2002, GM approved shipment of the ignition switches from Delphi and began production of the first vehicles to contain the faulty switches later that year.
Complaints of stalled vehicles begin to come in as early as 2003. Documents discovered by the DOJ reportedly reveal that GM officials were aware of the defect’s potential for deadly injury in 2004. GM’s first recall for the ignition-switch defect is finally issued, ten years later, in 2014.
GM’s Potential for Liability for Injuries and Deaths Caused by the Ignition-switch Defect
In yet another attempt to save itself money (in addition to the money it saved by releasing vehicles with the ignition-switch defect and then failing to recall them any earlier than it did), GM declared bankruptcy after lawsuits seeking compensation from the corporation for injuries and deaths caused by the defect were filed. As a result, GM has been protected from liability for injuries that occurred as a result of the defect before its 2008 bankruptcy.
Federal criminal fraud charges that may be brought against GM by the DOJ are speculated to have a possible effect on GM’s future ability to rely on its bankruptcy shield, however. Even if GM maintains the protection afforded by its bankruptcy for accidents occurring before 2008, GM remains liable for any accidents occurring after its declared bankruptcy.
Product Liability Law
Most states have enacted some form of the Model Uniform Product Liability Act (MUPLA). Though product liability laws may differ from state to state, most states allow for product liability actions under a breach of warranty, negligence, or strict liability theory. As strict liability claims relieve a plaintiff of the burden of proving negligence on the part of a product manufacturer, most product liability actions brought to recover damages for personal injuries caused by a defective product are brought as strict liability actions.
Product liability law applies to cars and other motor vehicles as well as to the component parts and safety features of such vehicles. When a vehicle or vehicle component is designed or manufactured in violation of Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards (FMVSS), Title 49, U.S. Code, the manufacturer and designer of the vehicle may be found strictly liable under most states’ product liability laws for injuries sustained by a plaintiff as a result of the product defect. The manufacturers and designers of defective component parts of a vehicle may also be held strictly liable for such injuries. In addition, the assemblers, suppliers, retailers, and others in the chain of the vehicle’s distribution may be found liable, though some states’ laws protect retailers from liability for defects that did not result from the retailer’s negligence. Thus, Delphi, as the supplier of the defective ignition switches in the recalled GM vehicles, may also be held strictly liable under most states’ product liability laws for injuries determined to have been caused by the ignition switch defect.
Liability for Wrongful Death
The manufacturer and others in the chain of a defective product’s distribution may also be found liable in a wrongful death action for damages suffered by a deceased accident victim’s family as a result of the victim’s death if the defect in the product is determined to have been a cause of the victim’s death.
Car Manufacturers’ Duty to Consumers Is a Serious Issue
Today’s writer, Jeffrey Killino, is the managing partner of The Killino Firm, P.C. and a respected litigation attorney with extensive experience with all types of accident, personal-injury, defective products, and wrongful death cases, including those arising out of injuries or deaths caused by defective cars and other motor vehicles. Attorney Killino is concerned with injuries and deaths caused to consumers by recalled and other defective vehicles and has obtained national recognition through appearances on major television networks such as CNN, ABC FOX, and the Discovery Channel, regarding his involvement in national cases, including a product-liability action that resulted in the recall of 450,000 defective tires manufactured in China