Posted On: May 16, 2014 by Nancy Barron

Government Tells General Motors: "Sorry" Is Not Good Enough

A record $35,000,000 fine for General Motors' unreasonable delay in addressing ignition switch problems sends a message to management, i.e., merely saying, "I'm sorry," is not good enough. The fine is the maximum currently allowed under federal law. Last month GM's newly appointed chief executive Mary T. Barra (pictured here) had apologized on behalf of General Motors in congressional hearings for more than a decade of lapses and inaction in responding to serious allegations of safety defects involving great bodily harm. mary-barra-mdn.jpg

Chevrolet Cobalts, Saturn Ions and other similar vehicles had been installed with faulty ignition switches, which are at the center of the controversy. Specifically, the defective component had a tendency to turn itself off if it was jostled or weighed down, thereby shutting down the engine entirely. When that happened, the loss of power in turn disabled air bags, power steering and brakes. One minuter the driver might be going 65 mph on the freeway; the next minute, the car came to a horrifying halt. For years GM and other manufacturers shrugged loss of power off vaguely as a mere "driveability" problem. But the instant malfunction has been linked to at least 13 deaths and 32 crashes. Those reports are likely just the tip of the iceberg, since cars with such defects are actually unsafe to drive.

Meanwhile the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration had come under fire for not acting sooner. Serious, repeated, credible driver reports of sudden stalling incidents, along with accidents from related brake and steering malfunctions, had been the subject of complaints involving severe physical injuries. GM's bankruptcy and ensuing government bailout program wiped out certain pre-2008 claims involving some of these injuries, but the complaints kept coming. The consumer public was offended and infuriated.

Many aggrieved consumers feel justice has now finally been done, while others contend the present fine is too little, too late. While the $35 million fine is the maximum currently authorized under federal law, that penalty does not affect currently pending civil lawsuits or most future claims by private parties.

Last week, after news of the fine was released, Ms. Barra said, “We have learned a great deal from this recall." She promised that her company, "will now focus on the goal of becoming an industry leader in safety." Let's hope so.