Source: The New York Times by By HILARY STOUT
[Friends and family of Lara Gass, including her mother, Gerri, left, participated in a half-marathon in Philadelphia this month. Credit Ryan Collerd for The New York Times]
She found the email early in the morning:
Your car has another recall. See the attached article from Chris. I guess we will soon be getting a letter from GM. FYI Love Dad
Lara Gass, a busy third-year law student in Virginia, shot back a quick reply to her father in Tennessee.
Oh great, one thing after another with that car. Thanks for the heads up! See you in a couple of days!
Three weeks later, Ms. Gass, 27, was killed after crashing into a tractor-trailer on her way to work as an intern for a federal judge.
She died three days after the official recall notice from General Motors arrived in the mail. It was the third recall on the car, a white 2006 Saturn Ion; this time the problem was a defective ignition switch that could shut off power and disable the power steering, brakes and air bags.
The state police blamed an icy highway for her accident. But now the lawyer running the victim compensation program for the automaker has made an offer to her family, a move that adds her to the rising death toll from accidents linked by the company to the ignition-switch defect.
[Lara Gass Credit Photo courtesy of the Gass family]
Her accident, on March 18, is the first known fatality to have occurred after G.M. disclosed the defect and began recalling 2.6 million cars. At the time, G.M. insisted, as it does today, that the cars were safe to drive if all objects were removed from the key chain to avoid jostling the switch. It is not known whether Ms. Gass followed those instructions — the driver's side of her car was badly burned — but in an email sent three days before her death, her father had told her to do so.
Among the questions haunting her grieving parents is why G.M. has not done more to get the defective cars off the road.
"The public health is at risk because these cars are on the road and they could fail at any time," her father, Jay Gass, said.
During months of outcry over G.M.'s handling of the switch issue, as investigations and lawsuits mounted, the company has fought any effort to get the recalled cars off the road until they are repaired.
The company has been so adamant that the cars are safe to drive that its chief executive, Mary T. Barra, said at a congressional hearing this spring that she would be comfortable letting her son drive one as long as he had only the ignition key.
To date, hundreds of thousands of unrepaired cars remain on the road, and the automaker continues to maintain that they are safe. The company responded to questions about the Gass accident and whether it still considered the cars safe to drive in an email from a spokesman.
"We conducted more than 100 tests at our proving grounds to demonstrate that it is safe to drive the recalled cars using just the ignition key and ring, with no fob, additional keys, or other accessories," the spokesman, James Cain, wrote. "These included high-speed tests and driving over a wide range of road surfaces and impacts."
The Gass family is among the first to receive a payment offer from G.M.'s compensation program. G.M. has given the manager of the program, Kenneth R. Feinberg, sole discretion to determine who is eligible and for how much, so his actions will serve as the publicly known toll from a defect that the company has acknowledged some of its engineers knew about for more than a decade. As of Friday, Mr. Feinberg had determined that 21 death claims were eligible, raising G.M.'s longstanding death tally of 13 by more than 50 percent.
Conversations with people briefed on the payment offers — which started to be sent out this week — suggested that the first 15 could total more than $70 million, though Mr. Feinberg and his associates would not disclose either the amounts or the identities of those who received them.
On Thursday, the families of two victims — Amy Rademaker, 15, and Natasha Weigel, 18, who died in a Wisconsin crash in 2006 — accepted an offer from Mr. Feinberg, said their lawyer, Robert C. Hilliard, who also represents the Gass family.
[Ms. Gass died when her 2006 Saturn Ion crashed in Virginia. Police initially attributed the accident to icy conditions. Credit Laura Peters/The News Leader]
Mr. Feinberg is still reviewing more than 120 death and 500 injury claims and has requested more evidence for most of them. Many additional claims are expected before the Dec. 31 filing deadline.
Families have 90 days to decide whether to accept the payments. If they do, they waive their right to sue the company — a concession G.M. is counting on to avoid costlier and lengthy court battles.
For the families, the prospect of receiving seven-figure payouts (Mr. Feinberg's formula starts with $1 million for each death) from the company can be deeply conflicting.
"I find it very hard to accept G.M.'s apologies and efforts to bestow money on us as a compensation for my daughter," said Mr. Gass, who would not disclose the amount of the offer. "If they were a good corporate citizen, they could have done the right thing the first time and not caused this kind of pain and grief to parents and families all over the country."
Ms. Gass, an honors student and law review editor at the Washington and Lee University School of Law in Lexington, Va., was driving on Interstate 81 that Tuesday morning just over six months ago.
It was a route she drove often. But on that day, the temperature was hovering just below freezing and snow shrouded the side of the road. A Jeep and a sport utility vehicle collided ahead of her, and two tractor-trailers behind them had stopped to avoid the wreck. Ms. Gass tried to do the same but could not avoid crashing into the back of one of the giant vehicles.
A state police sergeant cited weather but sounded slightly puzzled that Ms. Gass had not been able to stop safely, too. "I don't know what she did, if she locked up her brakes or what have you," Sgt. C. J. Aikens told a local television station.
Ms. Gass's car was burned so badly that its data recorder, or black box, was destroyed. The state police report listed air bag deployment as "unknown." In the claim to Mr. Feinberg, the family offered two eyewitnesses who said that they saw no air bags when they pulled the young woman out of the car. The vehicle erupted in flames moments later.
The car had a history of troubles, but Ms. Gass was conscientious about fixing them.
"The other two recalls got fixed as soon as possible," her father said.
[For the half-marathon, Lara's family wore bright yellow T-shirts that said â€œLive Like Lara.â€ â€œWe made a decision early on not to mourn Lara but to celebrate Lara,â€ Mr. Gass said. Credit Ryan Collerd for The New York Times]
She loved the car anyway, and even gave it a nickname, "Ivan."
Last Sunday morning, Ms. Gass's parents, one of her brothers and about 20 friends, including her boyfriend, Christopher Wagner, 29, met in Philadelphia to run a half-marathon in her honor. They wore bright yellow T-shirts that said "Live like Lara."
"We made a decision early on not to mourn Lara but to celebrate Lara," Mr. Gass said.
Her mother, Gerri Gass, said she tried to do that every day.
"I, for one, am very angry and always will be," she said. "But the way I look at life is, I get up every morning, go to work every morning and I keep in mind Lara. Everything I do, I want to make her feel proud of me and the way we live our life."
Though they have taken deep satisfaction in the many outpourings in memory of their daughter — a scholarship fund in her name that has already raised more than $65,000, the posthumous awarding of her law degree — they feel that it is their mission to warn other drivers.
Recently, Mr. Gass said, he saw a woman at a gas station get into a Saturn Ion holding a key chain heavy with keys. "I said do you know you have a recall on that car?" he said. She said,"I heard something about that"
Then, Mr. Gass told the woman, "Let me tell you the story of my daughter."
On March 15, three days before the accident, Ms. Gass's parents received the recall notice from G.M. with its warning not to drive with any objects on the key chain. Mr. Gass scanned it into his computer and forwarded it in an email to Lara, who was in Washington with friends running a half-marathon.
Under the subject line "Recall notice for Ivan," he wrote:
Got this notice in the mail today. Talks about having the car key on a key chain.
If you have other keys on the same key chain you should remove all other items from the key and/or key chain. See the attached. Have a safe trip back to Lexington.