Just How Much Did GM Know about Its Ignition Switch Defect? (Guest Post)

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

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