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GM Ignition Switches And The Public Good Of Tort Law

In February 2014, GM issued a recall notice regarding faulty ignition switches which could jostle out of the run position during operation and thus shut off power steering, power brakes, and airbags, all while the vehicle is potentially moving at full speed on a highway. Internal documents suggest that GM technicians knew about this defect for around 10 years prior to the recall, but if that’s the case, then what caused this change of heart?

As it turns out, it wasn’t an internal decision, nor was it the result of a regulator’s investigation. The reason GM finally came clean is because of a personal injury (also known as tort) case which forced them to go public with some damning documents.

Pretending Nothing Is Wrong

As far back as 2001, GM engineers noticed that the ignition switches in the new Saturn Ion weren’t sticking in place the way they needed to. These engineers quickly fixed the problem, but as it turns out they didn’t fix it far enough. While the switches were durable enough for a single key, as soon as you added a few more keys to the keyring the extra weight would wear them out.

By 2007, GM engineers were well aware of the problem, but instead of issuing a recall they simply fixed the design for all future car models. They also didn’t change the switch’s model number, which meant that few people even in GM knew what had happened. That same year, regulators informed the company of 10 fatalities in affected cars where the airbags did not deploy, and company investigators drew a direct link between the deaths and the faulty ignition switches. Still, they did not go public and the regulators did not investigate. Then, in the reshuffling following the 2008-09 bankruptcy and bailout, the details of what happened got buried.

Digging Up The Truth

In 2010, Brooke Melton died after her Chevrolet Cobalt lost power, collided with another vehicle, and then flipped off the road. The police ruled the accident as her fault, so her parents hired a local personal injury lawyer to clear her name. During his investigation, he discovered that the ignition switch was faulty, and thanks to the discovery process he obtained GM documents which proved that the company knew about the fault and did nothing to fix it for four years. Thanks to this information, GM settled out of court in September 2013.

The case finally made national papers in January 2014, and shortly afterwards GM’s new CEO, Mary Barra, was informed of the problem and told that the response would demand a large recall. This response started with the recall of 700,000 vehicles, but as the evidence entered the public domain, the number eventually ballooned up to 30 million.

It’s hard to say exactly how much GM would have said without the Melton lawsuit to stir things up, especially since there were other lawsuits and other individuals affected by the ignition switches. It is comforting to know, however, that when companies and regulators fail, the American justice system can still see to it that the truth will come out.