In the month or so that has elapsed since we reported on General Motors’ massive recall, the automakers’ problems have not improved. Our article’s headline claims that 1.6 million vehicles have been affected, but apparently that estimate was on the low end and on April 4, the New York Times claimed that the number had climbed to 2.6 million. The recall is largely due to malfunctioning electrical systems, most prominently faulty ignition switches, which have caused GM cars like the Pontiac G5, Saturn Ion, Chevrolet HHR, Saturn Sky, and Pontiac Solstice to suddenly shut off during operation. When this happens, a car’s driver loses the ability to steer and brake, but the danger does not end there. Electrical malfunctioning also deactivates air bags, placing passengers at elevated risk of injury in the event of an accident.
This recall comes after more than a decade of government regulators receiving about two complaints per month about unexpected shut-offs in various GM vehicles. News reports have indicated that GM responded to several of the complaints made directly to the company with form letters, many of which question the existence of a malfunction in the first place. This has recently been called into question, however, and the Boston Globe reports that GM knew about problems and worked to cover them up when they changed the design of the ignition switches in 2006. When confronted about this in court in April 2013, it took the company another nine or so months to initiate a recall.
Up to this point, General Motors has admitted that twelve deaths have been connected with its recalled vehicles, but it also claims that no fatalities have been linked with any of these 2.6 million since 2009, which strikes many as implausible. A recent New York Times piece takes as its subject Aubrey Williams, the daughter of a General Motors employee who as a rule never used a cell phone while driving. She died after her car swerved head on into an eighteen-wheeler in December 2013, and the police “initially blamed driver distraction for the crash and closed the case.” But the recent recall has reopened this investigation and raised question about countless others that have remained unsolved due to lack of adequate evidence.
As has proven to be a common thread among posts on this blog, small slivers of the truth have come to light in this case due to the tenacity and perseverance of private citizens and their attorneys scouring years-old documents to find evidence of covering-up and lying. Only weeks ago, a GM engineer claimed in court not to know about the 2006 redesign of ignition switches only to be presented with a document “showing he had signed off on it.” Senator Claire McCaskill claims that this engineer’s lies are rooted, at least in part, in the corporate culture at GM, a “culture that allowed an engineer […] to repeatedly lie under oath.”
Time and time again we have seen evidence to support the notion that the civil justice system is better able to protect citizens from dangerous products than government regulators or corporations. Many of these corporations support so-called tort reform efforts, actively working to limit the rights of individuals to access the courts. These courts, in turn, are often the only thing standing between corporate profits and safety.