Source: Detroit Free Press by Greg Gardner
General Motors ordered 500,000 replacement ignition switches last December, nearly two months before it initiated the first recall of what became 2.6 million vehicles equipped with defective switches now tied to at 32 deaths.
The disclosure comes from e-mails released by Texas attorney Robert Hilliard. They show that GM placed an urgent order for switches from supplier Delphi Corp. on Dec. 18 for a safety issue. The cars weren't recalled until Feb. 13.
GM CEO Mary Barra said she learned in late December when she headed the company's global product development group that GM employees were reviewing safety issues related to the Chevrolet Cobalt. But she didn't learn that there would be a recall until near the end of January.
[General Motors ordered 500,000 replacement ignition switches last December, nearly two months before it initiated the first recall of what became 2.6 million vehicles equipped with defective switches now tied to at least 30 deaths, according to emails obtained by an attorney representing families suing the automaker. (Photo: AP )]
A report issued earlier this year by former federal prosecutor Anton Valukas was highly critical of the way GM handled the ignition switch and other quality problems, but it did not mention that GM ordered replacement switches well before the recall.
Hilliard said he and his Corpus Christi firm Hilliard, Munoz and Gonzalez represent about 2,000 clients who have sued the automaker for wrongful deaths or injuries in accidents that the defective ignition switches may have caused.
GM said it is routine procedure to order parts ahead of a recall.
"These e-mails are further confirmation that our system needed reform, and we have done so. We have reorganized our entire safety investigation and decision process and have more investigators, move issues more quickly and make decisions with better data," GM said in a statement.
The new process enables top executives to make recall decisions more quickly so owners can take action sooner, the company said.
The switches can slip out of the run position, either from excessive weight on a key ring or by drivers' knees accidentally hitting the key, causing engines in such models as the Chevrolet Cobalt to stall. That can cut power to the power steering, brakes and air bags, causing drivers to lose control of their cars.
Hilliard's release of the Delphi emails led to Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., to call for Barra to testify again before "the appropriate Congressional committees."
"These documents raise deeply disturbing questions about the validity of the Valukas report, as well as the timeline of GM's efforts to protect its car owners," Blumenthal said in a statement. "The question is why the delay and how many lives were put at risk?"
Even if GM had issued the recall at the same time it ordered the first 500,000 replacement parts, Hilliard acknowledges that the parts would not have been ready until late January or early February.
"When GM finally notified their customers they also notified them they should take all the extra keys off the key chain," Hilliard said. "That information, provided sooner, could have saved lives and prevented accidents."
The Delphi emails show that the supplier's employees were surprised by the size of the order, which arrived just days before Christmas.
In one message Delphi employee Anthony Simonton told colleague Susan Dowling that at a price of $5.17 per unit the emergency order would yield $2.6 million in revenue to the supplier.
The same email cited information from a Sarah Missentzis, who worked for a GM contractor called Menlo Worldwide Logistics, that more than 700,000 vehicles "could be impacted by this field fix." The recall eventually grew to cover 2.6 million small cars, mainly from model years 2003 through 2007.
Hilliard said he is representing 85 clients who are suing GM based on 85 accidents, including one death, that occurred during between Dec. 18 and the Feb. 13 when GM began the first ignition switch recall.
Separately, compensation expert Ken Feinberg, whom GM retained to administer a compensation fund for victims of accidents caused by the ignition switch defect, has now approved 67 settlements. Of those, 32 were filed by families whose loved one died. Five are compensation for injuries in which someone was left a quadriplegic, paraplegic, suffered a double amputation, brain damage of pervasive burns.
Another 30 were filed by people who suffered less severe injuries for which they were treated and released within 48 hours of the crash.
Altogether 1,851 claims have been submitted to Feinberg, including 202 for fatalities. Hilliard said his firm's clients have submitted more than 300 of those claims.
Those who think they have evidence to support a settlement may file a claim through Dec. 31.