When General Motors (GM) initiated a February 2014 recall of small cars with ignition switch defects, it launched the most serious safety crisis in the automaker’s long history. But the ignition switch scandal, linked to hundreds of deaths and injuries, actually began much earlier than 2014.
The GM Ignition Switch Recall website states that “General Motors is committed to your safety.” The automaker’s actions tell a different story, though.
GM first learned of the defect in 2001 and in 2004, company executives rejected a proposed fix that would have cost $12 per vehicle. The first known ignition switch-related death occurred in 2005, at which time GM issued a “service bulletin” instead of a recall. Finally, in February 2014—nearly 13 years after becoming aware of the issue—GM agreed to recall vehicles with defective ignition systems.
Victims of the ignition switch fiasco need an advocate who is truly on their side. If you were hurt in, or lost a loved one to, a crash involving a faulty GM ignition switch, ClassAction.com can help. Learn more during a free case review.
The GM Ignition Switch Problem
The ignition switch on 2.6 million recalled GM cars can slip into the “Off” position while the vehicle is in motion, resulting in the loss of engine power, power steering, anti-lock braking, and airbags.
GM decided in the mid-1990s to put its own employees in charge of designing ignition switches to save money.
Improper mechanical specifications are blamed for the ignition switch defect. More specifically, there is a problem with a small part called a “detent plunger” that’s designed to keep the ignition switch in the “On” position (and thus keep the car running). The defective detent plunger did not have enough holding power to keep the switch from sometimes slipping from the “On” notch to the “Accessory” (ACC) notch.
GM has said that ignition switch slippage could be caused by heavy key chains, drivers bumping the ignition, and “jarring events” such as running off the road or potholes.
Of course, a driver cannot be blamed for a bad design that GM has admitted to. According to Automotive News, GM decided in the mid-1990s to put its own employees in charge of designing ignition switches (rather than a supplier) to save money.
The automaker is fixing all affected vehicles at no cost to owners.
The following makes and models have been identified as having faulty GM ignition switches:
Malibu Classic (2004-2005)
Monte Carlo (2000-2007)
Grand AM (1999-2005)
Grand Prix (2004-2008)
GM’s Public Deception: A Timeline of Events
Faulty GM ignition switches are blamed for hundreds of deaths and injuries. Making matters worse is that some within the company knew about the defective part for years but did nothing to stop it from being installed in millions of vehicles. The following timeline of events shows how GM put its own interests first and hoodwinked the American public, setting the stage for deadly accidents that could have been prevented.
- 2001: GM detects the ignition switch defect during developmental testing of the Saturn Ion.
- 2002: A GM senior engineer in charge of ignition design approves the faulty switch knowing it doesn’t meet technical specifications. The engineer spends so much time dealing with the part’s issues that he refers to it as the “switch from hell” in a 2002 memo.
- 2004: The defect is again recognized as the Chevy Cobalt replaces the Chevy Cavalier.
- 2005: GM executives reject improvements to the faulty ignition switch because they would have cost an additional 57 cents per part. In July, a Maryland resident dies when her 2005 Chevy Cobalt hits a tree after the ignition switch disables the car’s electrical system and the airbags don’t deploy. Later in the year, GM sends dealers a technical service bulletin regarding several vehicle models and years, warning about a stalling problem related to heavy key rings, but no recall is issued, and GM does not report the known defect to NHTSA (as federal law requires).
- 2006: GM implements a new ignition switch design to fix the defective system. A new part number for the replacement part is not issued, however, concealing the change.
- 2007: In April a fatal Wisconsin crash is linked to an ignition defect in a 2005 Chevy Cobalt after airbags do not deploy in the crash. A state trooper correctly makes the connection to the switch when he notices the key is in the “accessory” position and cross-references the 2005 service bulletin. He makes his case in a report sent to GM, which the company claims it didn’t see until 2014.
- 2008-2009: GM, facing financial trouble, receives billions in taxpayer-funded financial assistance from the federal government, files for bankruptcy, and undergoes restructuring. At no point during this process does it disclose the defective ignition system.
- 2012: GM identifies numerous crashes, including fatal crashes, attributable to the defect. Still, a GM internal investigation discounts these reports, prolonging resolution of the problem.
- 2013: A plaintiff’s expert in a products liability case x-rays pre and post-2008 Cobalt ignitions switches and determines that switches used in the earlier vehicles have a defect. GM learns of this “bombshell” discovery in April 2013 but waits until February 2014 to issue a recall. In June, a GM engineer says in a deposition that the company made a “business decision not to fix this problem.”
- 2014: Thirteen years after first becoming aware of the defect, GM agrees in February to recall 619,000 vehicles containing the faulty ignition system. The recall is expanded twice and by March includes 2.6 million vehicles. NHTSA hits GM with a $35 million civil penalty for delaying reporting the ignition switch defect.
- 2015: The Justice Department imposes a $900 million criminal penalty on GM for concealing safety defects from NHTSA and misleading consumers. No individual GM employees are criminally charged.
For the full story about GM’s handling of the ignition switch scandal, check out the internal audit report of GM written by a former U.S. attorney.
GM Compensation Fund
Following the ignition switch recall and revelations that GM may have covered up the problem for more than a decade, General Motors hired attorney Kenneth Feinberg in 2014 to oversee a victim compensation fund.
Feinberg—known for overseeing similar funds for the BP oil spill, 9/11, and the Boston Marathon bombing—reviewed nearly 4,500 claims filed after August 1, 2014. Fewer than 10% were deemed eligible for payments. Claims were rejected on the fund’s determination that they couldn’t support a connection to the ignition switch.
The fund offered $595 million for 124 death and 275 injury claims. More than 90 percent of the offers were accepted. Those who accepted an offer waived their right to file a GM ignition switch lawsuit. Details of the fund and payments can be found at USA Today.
Ignition Switch Lawsuits
Compensation fund payouts did not close the door on GM ignition switch lawsuits. GM still faces wrongful death and injury suits in courts, as well as lawsuits claiming that the recall lowered the value of owners’ vehicles.
More than 250 remaining injury and death lawsuits are consolidated in New York Federal District Court. GM has prevailed in several early lawsuits and agreed to settle another confidentially. The company has demonstrated a willingness to take these remaining cases to trial and argue that ignition switches are not to blame for the accidents.
It’s not too late to take legal action against GM over crashes involving defective ignitions switches, but claims musts be made soon.
Learn whether you qualify for a lawsuit and get answers to your questions during a free case review.