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Angry families want GM prosecuted

2014-04-08 08:19

GM UNDER FIRE: GM CEO Mary Barra apologised to relatives of 13 victims who died in crashes due to a faulty ignition switch in various GM cars. Image: AFP


WASHINGTON, USA - Wheels24 reported in March 2014 that General Motors would have to answer questions about to why it took nearly a decade  to recall 1.6-million cars sold in the US that have 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.

Now (April 8 2014) families of those killed want prosecutors to go after GM employees responsible for letting the problem fester for more than a decade - and perhaps for covering them up.


Families attended hearings in Washington in April 2014 that stoked those sentiments. Lawmakers confronted GM CEO Mary Barra with what they said was evidence that, in 2006, a company employeetried to conceal the switch problem.

The head of the US National Highway Traffic Safety Administration said 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 they 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 the GM might be inadmissible as evidence against individuals. It can be difficult to prove that individuals knowingly made false statements.

The US Justice Department didn't bring charges against any individuals in March 2014 when it closed its investigation of Toyota.


GM has acknowledged that in 2004 and 2005 engineers submitted proposals to fix switches in Cobalts, Saturn Ions and other small cars but the fixes were never implemented. GM says upper management only became aware of the problem in 2013.

A recall of the small cars, now as many as to 2.6-million, began in February 2014.

On April 2 Democratic senator Claire McCaskill accused one GM employee of a cover-up. Ray DeGiorgio, the lead switch engineer on the Cobalt, said in a deposition in 2014 during a lawsuit against GM that he never approved a change to the ignition switch.

McCaskill produced a document from GM's switch supplier that showed DeGiorgio signed off on a replacement but with the same part number. Failing to change a part number makes the part harder to track.

Appearing on ABC TV's ‘This Week’, McCaskill said: "There is no reason to keep the same part number unless you're trying to hide the fact that you've got a defective switch out there that in fact ended up killing a number of people on our highways."

Paul Rothstein, a Georgetown University law professor, wouldn't speak specifically about DeGiorgio but said somebody "caught in a lie" could be more vulnerable to individual prosecution.


Barra called the failure to change the part number "unacceptable" and said the company has notfired anybody in connection with the recall. She said if inappropriate decisions were made GM would take action, including firing those involved.

Barra said at the hearing that DeGiorgio still worked at GM. The company declined to make him available for an interview.

Ken Rimer, whose stepdaughter died in a 2006 crash when a faulty switch prevented airbag deployment: "If you can go to jail for insider trading and things like that, which is just making money, if you do something that caused a loss of life (the penalty) should be more than just a few dollars."

Matt Axelrod, a former federal prosecutor now in private practice in Washington, said prosecutors faced the burden of proving criminal wrongdoing: "The forum before a congressional committee is different to that of a forum before a jury."

The Justice Department hasn't confirmed that it's investigating General Motors but a person familiar with the case said the probe was under way. The person didn't want to be identified because the investigation was private.

In March 2014 Toyota was fined R13-billion after its recall of millions of vehicles for unintended acceleration. No individual was charged, even though prosecutors discovered that some managers sought to conceal problems with accelerator pedals in certain cars.

Proving individual guilt beyond a reasonable doubt was much harder than prosecuting a company based on the collective knowledge of all its employees. Axelrod said: "To charge an individual, you have to show that one individual acted illegally by himself."


For now, many of the families are simply seeking more information about the fatal crashes. Leo Ruddy, whose 21-year-old daughter Kelly was killed in 2010 when her Chevrolet Cobalt veered off the highway and crashed, said: "The only way the public is going to be protected from this negligence by companies is if there will ultimately be prison sentences."

Ruddy thought the power-steering motor failed on his daughter's 2005 Cobalt, causing her to crash while returning home from visiting friends.

The Cobalt model was recalled in 2010 to replace faulty power steering. Now he thinks the ignition switch could have shut off the engine, cutting off power-assistance to the steering and brakes and causing her to lose control of the car.

GM took the car's event data recorder and only recently returned it after the family contacted a Pennsylvania senator for help. The contents are being analysed and the family will be looking to see the position of the ignition switch, Ruddy said.

He said his family was considering a law suit against GM but had yet to file one. An attorney is advising them.

Rimer and his wife have already filed suit against GM. He's worried that GM might be legally protected from suits arising from decisions it made before its 2009 bankruptcy.

Rimer said: "No money will ever bring my wife's daughter back. Unless there's a consequence for them doing wrong what's going to stop them from doing something wrong again?"

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