DEEPLY SORRY: GM CEO Mary Barra apologises to family members of 13 victims who died in crashes due to a faulty ignition switch in various GM cars. Image: AFP
DETROIT, Michigan - Wheels24 reported in March 2014 that General Motors would have to answer questions about why it took nearly a decade to recall 1.6-million cars sold in the US for a fault that has been tied to 13 deaths.
On March 25 GM was hit with what was believed to be the first wrongful-death lawsuit over ignition switch problems. It had recalled 1.6 million vehicles the previous month.
On April 8 families of those killed wanted prosecutors to go after GM employees responsible for letting the problem fester for more than a decade - and perhaps for covering it up.
GM has reportedly placed two of its engineers on paid leave. The automaker said the action was taken after a brief by Anton Valukas, US Attorney for the Northern District of Illinois from 1985-89. He's been hired to figure out why GM was so slow to recall the cars.
Reuters has confirmed that the engineers are Ray DeGiorgio and Gary Altman. GM CEO Barra said the move was an interim step whle GM tried to figure out what happened.
GM says at least 13 people died in crashes linked to the ignition switch problem. The company is recalling 2.6-million cars globally to replace the switches.
SWITCH DESIGNER ON LEAVE
DeGiorgio designed the original switch for the 2003 Saturn Ion that went into production in August 2002. Versions of that switch were used in other GM models, including the Chevrolet Cobalt, that are also part of the global recall.
GM Chief Executive Officer Mary Barra, testifying last week before Congress, was challenged by Democratic Senator Claire McCaskill, who said "a culture of cover-up" caused DeGiorgio to deliver untruthful testimony about his knowledge of the defective ignition switch during his deposition in 2013 for a lawsuit related to a fatal 2010 crash in Georgia.
DeGiorgio said then that the Ion/Cobalt switch was "one of my first ignition switches."
The defective switch was redesigned in 2006, according to GM. DeGiorgio denied in his deposition that he knew of the change, but US congressional investigators produced an internal GM document showing DeGiorgio had signed off on the change in April 2006.
"He lied" about his knowledge of the defective part, McCaskill said. Barra said she had seen indications of that as well, but she wanted to let the company probe run its course over the next two months.
Repeated attempts by Reuters to contact DeGiorgio have been unsuccessful.
Altman was the program engineering manager on the Ion and Cobalt. In a deposition in the same 2013 lawsuit, Altman was asked by the plaintiffs' attorney whether GM had made a business decision in 2005 not to fix the switch.
He replied: "That is what happened, yes."
Altman did not return a phone call on Thursday (April 10) seeking his comment.
Valukas is the chairman of Jenner & Block. GM has worked with Jenner & Block since 2002, and at least two of the automaker's former top attorneys, Robert Osborne and Elmer Johnson, were partners at the Chicago law firm.
Barra said in a statement: "This is an interim step as we seek the truth about what happened."
Some members of Congress have expressed interest in calling GM engineers, including DeGiorgio, to testify at hearings that will likely come this spring or summer.
DIFFICULT TO FIND CULPRITS
The head of the US National Highway Traffic Safety Administration alleged that GM withheld critical information that connected the failing switch to air bags that didn't deploy during a crash.
Republican senator Kelly Ayotte, a former state prosecutor, said: "I don't see this as anything but criminal."
However, even if an employee or employees did conceal information, it's uncertain whether such a person would be charged with a crime. Legal experts claim it's easier to prove wrongdoing by a corporation than by individuals.
Internal documents that could be used to build a case against GM might be inadmissible as evidence against individuals. It can be difficult to prove that individuals knowingly made false statements.