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GM Ignition Switch Defect & Recall

General Motors became one of the most discussed companies in 2014 after recalling 2.6 million vehicles for an ignition switch defect early in the year. As the year progressed, GM would issue recalls reaching 30 million vehicles, accounting for half of all the vehicles recalled in the United States. Because of this, 2014 became the year with most automotive recalls in history.

The problem began more than decade before when an engineer noticed an error with the ignition switch in several models that allowed the key to slip from the “on” position to “off” or “accessory,” potentially disabling the vehicle. Instead of correcting the error, production continued and now more than 100 deaths are attributed to the defective ignition switch.

Faulty Detent Plunger

When the key is inserted into a vehicle’s ignition, a mechanism called the detent plunger holds it in the desired position. It acts as a spring, shrinking and expanding based on the action of the key and driver.

It took an engineer working for an attorney involved in a GM-related fatal car accident case to discover the fatal error in GM’s detent plunger – the device was millimeters too short and didn’t create enough tension, allowing the spring to release the key when bumped or jostled.

If the key switches from an “on” position while driving to “off” or “accessory,” the vehicles will lose power steering and power brakes. Without these vital functions, the vehicle may become uncontrollable and swerve into oncoming traffic or off the road. Air bags can also be disabled, potentially making the outcome of the accident much worse.

Victims and Accidents

After initially announcing the recall in early spring, GM claimed 12 people had died while dozens of others had been injured. More than a year later, those numbers have increased to more than 100 deaths and several hundred injuries with claims still being processed.

In 2010, Brooke Melton was driving her 2005 Chevy Cobalt when it stalled. She maneuvered the powerless car off the road, restarted it and visited the dealership to have it fixed. After picking up the repaired vehicle, her car unexpectedly shut off again, this time causing a fatal collision. It was the day before her 29th birthday.

Brooke’s death was the initial catalyst for identifying the faulty ignition switches in almost 3 million GM vehicles. An engineer hired by the law firm representing Brooke’s parents combed through junkyards until he identified a difference in length between detent plungers.

This discovery provided answers for friends and families who remained haunted by the loss of their loved ones in unexplainable accidents.

Candice Anderson spent most of a decade believing she was responsible for the 2004 accident that killed her boyfriend. A history of drug use and a trace of Xanax in her blood led a grand jury to indict her on an intoxication manslaughter charge. After pleading guilty to a lesser charge of negligent homicide, she was sentenced to five years probation with a fine. It would take seven more years for GM to admit the defect and vindicate Candice of the guilt that continued to torment her.

At many of the accident scenes, troopers noted a lack of tire marks or signs of evasive action. These strange reports were included but overshadowed by assumptions of road conditions, alcohol and no seatbelts. Despite external factors, the keys of the crashed vehicles were in the “off” or “accessory” position, making the vehicle challenging to control.

The initial death count released by GM featured only qualifying deaths, excluding passengers in the backseat or other vehicles who lost their lives as the result of the malfunctioning car. In some cases, drivers and passengers sustained debilitating injuries, including severe spinal damage and permanent brain damage. Most of the original victims were under the age of 25.

Culture of Incompetency

In 2000, a new law passed by Congress required automakers to inform the regulators about potential defects linked to injuries or deaths in a report to provide the government with additional information beyond consumer reports. This mandate, created before the ignition switch problems started, made it necessary for GM to tell the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration about the accidents, with the official police report attached.

In certain cases, including several deaths linked to the faulty detent plunger, GM provided answers about the causes surrounding the accidents, but never mentioned the defect. Sometimes GM claimed they never investigated and didn’t know the reason. Other times they cited attorney-client privileged information and said they couldn’t disclose the reason. Even worse, at times they chose to say nothing at all with a simple reply of “GM opts not to respond.”

For more than a decade as the accidents continued to take lives, GM maintained it was a minor customer convenience issue. The understaffed and underfunded NHTSA cannot monitor every irregularity, allowing the issue to go unnoticed.

After former federal prosecutor Anton Valukas completed GM’s internal investigation last June, Mary Barra, GM CEO, announced 15 employees had been fired and an additional five disciplined for their actions involving the faulty detent plunger. The reasons for dismissals range from incompetence and misconduct to those who failed to do more to fix the situation.

The Department of Justice held several hearings in conjunction with their criminal case against GM and recently determined criminal charges are likely due to beliefs the automaker intentionally hid the problem with misstatements for more than 10 years. Punishment will range from criminal prosecution to a fine, most likely eclipsing Toyota’s record fine last year. Charges against former employees are also being considered.

Compensation and Legal Options

In the decade this defect went undetected, many lives were affected by GM’s negligence. While some victims previously settled out of court, others tried to file lawsuits and class action suits for loss of vehicle value. GM’s 2009 bankruptcymakes legal action almost impossible. Last summer, a compensation fund was announced to provide an option for victims.

Uncapped Compensation Fund

To manage the claims, GM hired compensation expert Kenneth Feinberg to create a fund for the victims. His past experience includes 9/11, the Boston Marathon bombing and the BP oil spill. He announced an uncapped fund for those affected with little GM involvement and no limits.

When GM created the original death tally, it used very specific terms, but Feinberg’s plan is much less involved. From August 1, 2014 to January 31, 2015, people involved in a GM-related accident or their families could submit their claim. To qualify, questions were answered about the accident and its cause to show it was due to the ignition switch defect, although absolute proof wasn’t required. If the air bag deployed, it was an immediate refusal. Other factors previously used as reasons for accidents, including speeding, texting, drinking and not wearing a seatbelt were not deterrents.

The fund covers three types of claims: deaths, catastrophic injuries and less-serious injuries. From there, the matrix helps determine the exact amount due based on age and income. Claimants range into the millions depending on the facts of the case. The death toll has now surpassed 100 with more claims to be processed.

After submitting the claim, victims could either accept the terms and payout or reject the offer and pursue legal action. If they accepted the deal, they waived the right to further action.

2009 Bankruptcy

When GM filed for bankruptcy in 2009, it essentially became two entities – old GM and new GM. Under the specific terms of the filing, all claims prior to July 2009 could not be legally taken to new GM, the one currently operating. Because of this, most victims of the accidents associated with the recall cannot pursue individual legal action, making the fund the only option.

Attorneys attempted to change this and hold GM accountable, but Judge Robert Gerber who initially oversaw the bankruptcy ruled the terms were absolute. Because GM is legally correct in saying the claims can’t be filed, the lawyers would need to find conscious concealment and fraud from GM.

Injured?

If you have been injured in a car accident, our attorneys may be able to help. Each situation is unique, but time limits apply in most cases, so don't delay in contacting us today.

List of Vehicles

Below are the vehicles included in GM’s ignition switch recall. You can enter your VIN here to see if your car is affected as well.

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