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Auto Regulators Did Not Respond to GM Defect Associated with 13 Deaths

Mar 10, 2014

More than 260 consumer complaints have been received by federal safety regulators in the past 11 years concerning General Motors (GM) vehicles that allegedly abruptly shut off while being driven.

According to a The New York Times investigation, GM, which allegedly declined to conduct an investigation at the time, is now stating that its vehicles are associated with 13 deaths and that it must recall 1.6 million cars globally. The analysis of consumer complaints to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) revealed that, since February 2003, it had received about two complaints each month over potentially dangerous vehicle shutdowns, but consistently responded that there was insufficient evidence to warrant a safety investigation, according to the Times. The most recent complaint was filed last week.

The complaints all involve six GM models now being recalled due to defective ignition switches that may shut engines off, cause power systems to shut down, and leave air bags disabled. The first recall notice was mailed late last week to vehicle owners, the Times reported.

“When the vehicle shuts down, it gives no warning, it just does it,” wrote one driver of a 2005 Chevrolet Cobalt. “I drive my car to and from work praying that it won’t shut down on me while on the freeway.” Another driver, writing about the same auto model indicated that, “Engine stops while driving—cannot steer nor brake so controlling the car to a safe stop is very dangerous,” according to the Times.

The Times reported that the NHTSA wrote back with so-called “formulaic” letters, even to then-Massachusetts Congressman, Barney Frank in 2010, who was writing in response to a very concerned constituent whose 2006 Cobalt was continually stalling. The response letter indicated that the agency reviewed its database of complaints to determine if a “safety defect trend” existed and, “at this time, there is insufficient evidence to warrant opening a safety defect investigation.”

“This is a safety issue if there ever was one,” wrote Laura Denti of Toms River, New Jersey, in a letter to GM customer service and to the NHTSA in June 2005. The letter cited three occasions in which her daughter’s new 2005 Cobalt abruptly shut down when in operation and referred to a prior letter. “I don’t recall them ever responding,” Ms. Denti said in an interview with the Times last week. The family terminated the lease following a third event. “I ended up owing thousands of dollars extra,” Samantha Denti, the daughter, said.

GM announced that the ignition defect may have been responsible for 31 accidents and 13 deaths. The automaker has not disclosed the names of the 13 people who died and other crash details and did indicate that it had been “involved in claims and lawsuits” related to the ignition problem, according to the Times. GM did not release the number of settlements reached.

“Is my daughter’s name in the 13?” asked Mary Ruddy of Scranton, Pennsylvania in an interview with the Times. The NHTSA’s database contains at least four complaints from Ms. Ruddy, whose 21-year-old daughter, Kelly, was killed on January 10, 2010, while driving a 2005 Chevrolet Cobalt. Because Ms. Ruddy’s complaints did not specify stalling issues, the complaints were not counted in the review. Also, despite numerous requests, the auto’s “black box” was not returned despite GM’s policy to return any part, such as a black box, when requested by the vehicle owner. Ms. Ruddy told the Times that she was only sent an “air bag deployment report” that she described as being incomprehensible to her and her lawyer. She said she has also received form letters from the agency indicating that it had received her complaint. “They never called me and never spoke to me…. I just want someone to hear me,” she said. “We’ve had no closure. We still have no answers.

According to The Associated Press (AP), the NHTSA sent a 27-page order demanding GM. release documents and other data indicating what it knew and when it learned about the dangerous ignition issue. The NHTSA indicated that it is investigating how GM handled the problem. The automaker acknowledged that it was aware of the ignition issue one decade ago, but only recalled the impacted cars last month.

The NHTSA seeks to understand if GM delayed its response or withheld evidence, which may lead to a fine of up to $35 million. Automakers must advise the agency within five days of learning of such defects, according to the AP.

Last month GM announced the recall of more than 780,000 Chevrolet Cobalts and Pontiac G5s (model years 2005-2007). It soon added 842,000 Saturn Ion compacts (2003-2007) and Chevrolet HHR SUVs and Pontiac Solstice and Saturn Sky sports cars (2006-2007), the AP reported.

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