How Negligent Was GM on Ignition Problems?

Negligence in terms of product liability

It took 42 deaths, 58 injuries, 2.7 million cars recalled and 13 years of errors and a cover-up before  any definitive action, a product recall, was taken to prevent GM’s vehicles from killing more people.

After reviewing the timeline of events that led up the 2014 GM recall for ignition defects, we should be asking just how negligent was GM?

Timeline of Known Events

  • 2001 – 2002 Pre-production testing engineers noted a problem with ignition switches.
  • 2003 A GM service tech observes a Saturn Ion stall and writes a report.
  • 2004 A GM engineer bumps the key in a Chevy Cobalt ignition and the car stalls.
  • 2006 GM test drivers are fully aware of the ignition problems.  GM appears willing to make repairs, but then mixes defective ignition part with newer improved part and gives them all the same item number, resulting in years of more confusion.
  • 2007 GM officials become aware of 10 deadly Cobalt accidents.
  • 2009 GM files Chapter 11 to restructure debts.
  • 2009 GM asks the government to waive all prior liabilities as part of the Chapter 11 restructure. The government agrees.
  • 2010 More deaths and accidents are attributed to GM cars stalling out.
  • 2012-2013 GM finally conducts internal testing and officially recognizes that ignition switches are truly broken.
  • 2014 GM issues a product recall for approximately 2.7 million vehicles

It is obvious that GM dragged it’s feet on issuing a product recall. As a result, more people were injured and killed. So, will the courts find  GM guilty of criminal negligence or gross negligence? The answer could determine whether GM’s responsibility has a price tag of millions or billions in paying damages to the families of the deceased and those injured.

Criminal Negligence vs. Gross Negligence

The difference between the two types of negligence has to do with foresight.  Did GM foresee that their actions or lack of action would result in more injuries?  Criminal negligence lacks foresight. Gross negligence implies that a reasonable person could foresee that their actions or lack of actions may result in harm to innocent third parties.

The timeline of events clearly points to a lack of action on GM’s part to take timely and necessary steps to prevent their vehicles from becoming disabled and transformed into uncontrollable projectiles on the public roads and highways.  We can also speculate that when the newly-structured GM filed Chapter 11 and received a waiver by Congress of any responsibility for prior liabilities of the old GM, they felt no urgency to prevent further problems caused by their faulty ignition switches.

Unfortunately for the families of the deceased and those injured, it is unlikely that GM, despite pressure from Congress, will waive the liability shield it gained while exiting Chapter 11 in 2009.  The decision to make GM responsible for prior liabilities now rests with bankruptcy judge Robert Gerber.  On the plus side for the families of the diseased, Judge Gerber acknowledged that there was enough evidence for GM to issue a recall well before June 2009.

However, even if Judge Gerber rules against GM, GM will likely appeal and thus delay the families of the diseased and those injured their day in court.  GM’s strategy appears to push all those affected by the ignition problem to accept a settlement and agree not to bring a wrongful death suit.

Consumer protection laws

In a just world, GM should be found grossly negligent and suffer the full weight of its callous inaction and for putting dollars and cents over the lives of innocent third parties.  Willfully taking the lives of others should hold the highest of consequences.

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