Major Recalls - Chevrolet Cobalt Airbag

 Chevrolet Cobalt Airbag

       On February 7, 2014, General Motors announced it would recall 619,122 2005-07 Chevrolet Cobalts and 2007 Pontiac G5's for an ignition switch defect that could shut off the engine and power steering as well as deactivate the airbags.  GM said there had been 6 deaths and 17 injuries in crashes associated with the defect.  On February 24, 2014 GM expanded the recall to 1.6 million vehi­cles by including the 2003-07 Saturn Ion, and the 2006-07 Chevrolet HHR, Pontiac Solstice and Saturn Sky, and announced the number of known deaths was 13.  At the same time, GM issued its first public apology since it apologized to Ralph Nader in 1966.  GM North America Pres­ident Alan Batey said: “We are deeply sorry and we are working to address this issue as quick­ly as we can. The chronology shows that the process employed to examine this phenomenon was not as robust as it should have been. Today’s GM is committed to doing business differently and better. We will take an unflinching look at what happened and apply lessons learned here to improve going forward.”  Shortly thereafter, GM CEO Mary Barra an­nounced GM would enlist an outside firm to conduct an independent review of the company’s actions relative to the ignition switch defect.

On March 28, 2014 GM further expanded the recall, adding 823,788 2008-2011 vehicles to the recall that may have received the defective ignition as a service part.  This action brought the total number of recalled vehicles to 2.2 million. On April 1, 2014, GM CEO Barra and NHTSA Acting Administrator David Friedman testified on the matter before the House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations.  This was followed on April 2 with another round of Barra and Friedman testimony before the Senate Commerce Subcommittee on Consumer Protection, Product Safety, and Insurance. Documents obtained by these subcommittees shed light on both GM and NHTSA’s failures to ensure a timely recall.  

GM learned about the ignition switch defect as early as 2001, while the Saturn Ion was still in development. Even after receiving reports of deaths and injuries caused by the defect, GM canceled plans to conduct a broad remedy, instead issuing Technical Service Bulletins in 2005 and 2006 that instructed dealers to respond to owner complaints by advising owners to remove heavy items from their keychains.  Despite a climbing death toll, GM ignored the millions of vehicles on the road with the defect, and instead started production of another version of the switch that would be included in future vehicle production.  This “new” version of the switch contained a larger detent spring and plunger to increase the effort required for key movement, thus avoiding the problems of the defective switch.  This switch was designed during the same period in 2001 in which the defective switch was developed, but was not selected for the recalled vehicles due to increased cost of production.  In a clear attempt to cover up the change, GM engineer Ray DeGiorgio made the unusual request that the parts number for the non-defective switch remain unchanged from the parts number of the defective switch. 

While GM bears full responsibility for not recalling these vehicles in 2005 and changing the design for future models, NHTSA bears responsibility for not investigating and ordering a recall by 2007 when it discovered the defect and failed to influence a recall by GM.  The Center for Auto Safety discovered internal NHTSA records that showed the agency learned of the defect through Special Crash Investigations into the advanced airbag systems in 2005 Chevrolet Cobalts.  NHTSA not only met with GM regarding the defect in 2007, but also opened an initial evaluation to determine whether a defect investigation was warranted.  No defect investigation resulted from this evaluation.  Another evaluation was conducted by NHTSA in 2010 with the same result, as the agency was unable to find a defect trend in their data. NHTSA also obtained re­cords of 17 lawsuits and claims from GM on Chev­rolet Cobalts and Saturn Ions through its Early Warning Reporting System, but kept the records from the public. 

At the time of publication, investigators in both the US House of Representatives and Senate continue to pursue answers from GM, NHTSA, and related parties.  The DOT’s Inspector General has confirmed that an audit will be opened to look into NHTSA’s safety functions and process related to the GM recall.  The US Department of Justice is investigating GM for violation of criminal penalties for failing to comply with laws requiring timely disclosure of defects, as well as bankruptcy fraud related to actions by GM during its 2009 bailout.

GM is also facing a number of individual and class action lawsuits related to the defective ignition switches. See Brandt v. General Motors LLC, 14-cv-00079, U.S. District Court, Southern District of Texas (Corpus Christie); McConnell v. General Motors LLC, California Central District Court, Case No. 8:14-cv-00424.  Motions are currently pending that would establish a multidistrict litigation. Complicating these lawsuits is GM’s 2009 bankruptcy, which absolves the “new” GM of liability related to vehicles produced prior to bankruptcy.  GM is currently filing motions to have these class actions moved to federal bankruptcy court for a determination of whether the claims have been barred.  Readers can view the latest bankruptcy court filings at the following link: http://www.motorsliquidationdocket.com/maincase.php3 .

For its part, NHTSA has sent NHTSA a Special Order on the belated recall which clearly points to the agency seeking the maximum penalty possible under the Safety Act for GM’s fail­ure to do a recall in 2005.  NHTSA is also fining GM $7,000 per day for failure to produce timely responses to NHTSA information requests.