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What and when did GM Know about the Ignition Switch Product Defect?


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According to a recent article published in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, an investigator for a car rental company contacted General Motors regarding a suspicious defect approximately seven years prior to the announcement of the recall. Furthermore, the article identifies a number files containing the exchanges between GM and the U.S. National Highway Traffic Safety Commission. Despite the new reports and information, it is still unclear how GM and federal regulators missed the signs of the ignition-switch recall.

If you have been injured due to a defective product like a vehicle, household good, or other product the attorneys of the Law Practice of Ken Kieklak can stand-up for you. We work to achieve a favorable settlement or jury verdict for you.

How did the Car Rental Companies Become Involved?

One of the earliest signs of the ignition switch defect, in hindsight, was likely a September 2006 vehicle rollover in California. According to accident reports, the driver lost control of the vehicle in clear conditions and without heavy traffic. The police report stated that for unknown reasons the vehicle drifted across the roadway and onto the gravel median. While traveling on or across the median, the vehicle rolled-over. Although the driver was wearing a seatbelt, the airbags did not deploy and a fatality was suffered. In response to this accident an investigator for Vanguard Car Rental USA requested that GM “…open a claim and inspect this vehicle for possible defects.”

According to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch report, Vanguard Car Rental was not the only rental company that was expressing concern to GM. Enterprise, who would acquire two of Vanguard ‘s rental brands in 2007, also expressed concerns regarding GM vehicles including the Chevy Cobalt. Unfortunately the files did not reveal whether GM heeded Vanguard or Enterprise’s requests and initiated an investigation.

The exchanged files submitted by GM reveal that from 2005 to 2013, GM was aware of at least 30 crashes and 37 deaths due to defects in the Saturn Ion and Chevy Cobalt. Additional files obtained by Bloomberg News contained details of 81 crashes, though not all incidents in this collection concerned the ignition switch defect.

What Accidents and Incidents were revealed by these Files?

Of the accidents revealed through the exchanges between GM and the NHTSA, all seem to hint at the defects which would only be announced in 2014. However, at the time the disparate pieces were not assembled into a comprehensive picture. The reported accidents included:

  • Bee Cave, Texas, March 2005 – A woman and her ex-husband were killed after she lost control of a Saturn Ion. The woman’s teenage daughter was a passenger in the car’s back seat and suffered a traumatic brain injury among other serious injuries. The responding police officer concluded that the accident had been the result of a steering or braking defect. However a subsequent investigation by an Enterprise third-party contractor did not reveal a defect or malfunction.
  • Bucks County, Pennsylvania, January 2006 – In this crash a Chevy Cobalt also left the roadway killing its driver. The police report noted that the airbag did not deploy after the vehicle struck a tree.
  • California, September 2006 – As discussed above, a driver of a new rented Chevy Cobalt lost control of the vehicle under clear weather conditions. The airbag did not deploy.

These accidents seem to follow the pattern presented by the ignition switch defect. That is, drivers of models including the Cobalt, Ion and others could lose power from the engine when the key was bumped or if the key was attached to certain key chains, the loss of engine power could result in a loss of steering, loss of braking, loss of vehicle control, and airbags failing to deploy. Accord to the Dispatch report, it appears that at least 9 rental companies have vehicles which may be involved in the ignition switch recall.

Rental Car Companies and Industry Watches Weigh-In on GM’s Actions

According to rental-car industry consultant Maryann Keller, “If there is a canary in the coal mine, it’s the rental car companies.” Other industry watchers have further expanded on that point noting that affordable models like the Cobalt or Ion are often the workhorses of a rental vehicle fleet. Due to the inherent nature of the car rental business, these vehicles are driven for many miles by those who are often not familiar with the particulars of the vehicle’s operation. In fact, Ms. Keller, who served on the Dollar Thrifty board from 2000 to 2012 remarked “You put a lot of miles on very quick, and any initial defects on the car rise to the surface, and, in fact, that’s the way auto companies were supposed to use this. They were supposed to be able to detect defects very early.”

What Actions have Lawmakers Taken?

Members of Congress have directed blame at both GM and the NHTSA. Lawmakers want to know why the signs of the ignition switch defect were not detected by the Early Warning Reporting system. Senator Claire McCaskill (D-MO) has already twice questioned GM CEO Mary Barra regarding the automaker’s handling of the defect. She has indicated that further inquiry would be directed at the NHTSA. Industry watchers expect questions probing why the regulatory agency did not open a formal investigation despite looking into problems with the airbags in GM vehicles.

Put our Experience to work for you

If you or a loved one have suffered an injury due to a defective vehicle or another types of defective product, do not delay in contacting an experienced defective product and Rogers, AR personal injury lawyer. For your free and confidential legal consultation, call Fayetteville AR personal injury lawyer Ken Kieklak today at (479) 316-0438 or contact us online.

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