One of the “Big Three” Automakers, General Motors, has announced a massive recall of 1.6 million vehicles which apparently had defective ignition switches, causing the cars to turn off and disabling airbags in the process. As a result of the defective ignitions, the electrical systems in the vehicles would be inoperable, causing the airbags not to deploy, and many drivers and passengers of GM vehicles died as a result.
According to the Center for Auto Safety, federal data complied by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) revealed that 303 deaths were caused due to the failure of airbags to deploy. GM acknowledges 12 fatalities due to the defective ignition switches, but nonetheless, has instituted a massive recall of 1.6 million vehicles, comprised of 2005-07 Chevrolet Cobalts, 2003-2007 Saturn Ions, 2005-2007 Pontiac G5’s, 2006-07 Chevrolet HHRs, the 2006-07 Pontiac Solstice, and the 2007 Saturn Sky.
GM is now facing a congressional investigation and an inquiry by federal prosecutors in N.Y. into its response to the defective ignition switches, after it was widely reported that GM engineers knew in 2004, and possibly as early as 2001, about the ignition switch problem.
Recently, a slew of lawsuits by crash victims’ families and shareholders have been commenced, and some were settled in the last few months. One recent settlement involved the death of 29 year old Brooke Melton, who was killed after her 2006 Chevy Cobalt suddenly lost power and crashed into another car. Her attorney made demands for GM internal documents and information as to other similar claims, in response to which GM’s attorneys fought bitterly in attempting to resist providing the information and documentation. However, in a complete reversal of strategy, GM settled the case with the requisite confidentiality agreement demanded by corporations in all such cases. Part of GM’s motivation may have been the public relations nightmare that Toyota experienced back in 2010 when the company was hit with numerous “sudden acceleration” cases and blamed driver error rather than addressing the problem in a reasonable, prompt fashion.
Similarly, there was the fatal accident of Hasaya Chansuthus, a 25 year old woman killed when her 2006 Chevrolet Cobalt went out of control in the rain in Murfreesboro, Tennessee on December 31, 2009. Her car sideswiped another vehicle and crashed into a tree at 70 miles per hour, with no air bag deployment. Initially, GM fought the case based upon Ms. Chansuthus’ blood alcohol level of 0.19, more than twice the legal limit. However, after litigation was commenced, GM changed tactics and quietly settled the case with a confidentiality agreement.
It appears that the problem often occurs due to heavy key chains, which cause the ignition switches to move from the on position to "accessory" or "off." This apparently resulted in cars stalling, losing power for the steering and brake systems, and disabling the airbags. One of the issues that GM will now have in announcing a recall at this late date is the fact that many of the vehicles are now with second or third owners, who may have no connection with GM and may not be notified of the recall.
GM is recommending that all owners of the affected vehicles, until they are modified, take all non essential items off of their key rings to prevent the movement of the switches from “on” to “accessory” or “off”.