By on January 14, 2016


I realize for many of you the lunch hour is probably over by now, but there’s enough time before the end of the afternoon to read, digest and regurgitate repeatedly over Atlanta magazine’s epic telling of one family’s lawsuit against General Motors for their faulty ignition switches.

Seriously, it’s great. Go read it. Take a sandwich or something.

I’ll cover for you at work, no prob. 

The story doesn’t divulge any new details about the case that aren’t already public: GM made bunk ignition switches that could unexpectedly shut off, disabled safety equipment, and proved fatal for 124 people. Meanwhile, the automaker noticed the ignition switches could fail, but GM changed the part without notifying regulators, which turned out to be the smoking gun in lawsuits against “old” General Motors.

But what the story does provide is a deeply personal background on the investigation by attorneys and the automaker, and subsequent roadblocks thrown up by GM on the way to its record settlement with families and the near-record fine by the government.

From the story:

Dressed casually compared to most days—plaid button-down shirt, suede shoes, no jacket—(attorney for a victim’s family, Lance Cooper is) still angry over GM’s settlement with the Justice Department. He brings up Stewart Parnell, the 61-year-old head of a peanut butter company in southwest Georgia, who in 2015 was sentenced to 28 years in prison for ordering the shipment of a paste contaminated with salmonella that caused nine deaths.

“At some point in time, GM’s conduct became reckless, and then it almost became intentional because they weren’t doing anything about what they knew,” Cooper says as he readjusts the white square napkins around his red sandwich basket. “Their conduct has caused well over 100 deaths at this point—I’m sure there were more unreported—and they have to pay a fine.”

The story paints a grim picture of a Georgia woman that was killed when her Chevrolet Cobalt shut off, spun off an interstate and plunged into a river. The woman’s family sued General Motors and a car dealership that had inspected her car just the day before the crash, after she told her father that the car would “simply shut off while she was driving it, and she’d have to pull over to the side and restart it,” according to the story.

The family eventually settled with GM, before they learned that one of its lead engineers lied during depositions in that case about whether he knew the ignition switch had changed. The family sued General Motors again and settled again, but Cooper’s involvement in the case strikes a chord with how difficult it is to take on behemoth corporations for gross misconduct. Laws won’t save us, he thinks:

Over the years, as he’s represented victims and survivors of horrific car accidents, Cooper has come to believe that federal regulations can do only so much. Corrupt corporate execs and engineers, he’s concluded, will always find ways to game the system. “You have to have some regulation,” says Cooper, who describes himself as an economic conservative. “But more often than not, regulations don’t work to protect people. That’s why you need the jury trial.” Not surprisingly for a liability attorney, Cooper sees the threat of seven- and eight-figure awards as the biggest incentive for car companies to do the right thing. Fear of litigation trumps fear of the federal government.

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45 Comments on “Take a Break and Read This Story About GM’s Ignition Switch Lawsuit. Now....”

  • avatar

    As the saying goes, I will believe corporations are people when Texas executes one.

    • 0 avatar

      That would be a sight to see. I might even subscribe to cable just for the PPV opportunity to watch that.

    • 0 avatar

      For all intents and purposes, the Fed Govt basically executed Arthur Andersen in the wake of the Enron implosion. However, this was an exceptional case since it was the loss of licenses and reputation that did them in, and not an explicit dismantling of the firm. I doubt that any govt, Fed or state, would ever actually “execute” a corporation. They would just fine it into bankruptcy.

  • avatar

    And VW have killed how many?

    • 0 avatar

      For what?

    • 0 avatar

      GM likes to do direct kills through indifference/lack of ethics. VW does it indirectly.

      • 0 avatar

        GM didn’t directly kill anyone. All the switch failing does is shut off the engine, which is not at all a difficult problem to recover from. Now your car isn’t supposed to do that, so GM certainly has some culpability in the deaths, but to say GM’s actions led directly to those deaths is to overstate their responsibility.

        • 0 avatar

          Try this experiment: While driving at highway speed, turn the key to “off” and see what happens. (Hint: Engine shutdown won’t be the only thing that occurs.)

          Just be sure that you do this on an empty road and when you have no passengers, so that you’re the only one who gets hurt or killed from this test.

          • 0 avatar

            I did this in a 2005 ION Lvl 2. First on a wide, lightly-traffic’d 4-lane road. Then on the interstate, in a construction with unlevel road surfaces at 65MPH.

            If you really ‘recover’ a 2800-lb car from this, you shouldn’t be driving.

            Though, to be fair, I wasn’t impaired by alcohol/pills, travelling 20MPG over the speed limit on a wet road, or texting/applying makeup/dialing at the same time.

          • 0 avatar

            The switches weren’t shutting off while merely cruising down the street on a sunny day. The deceased may have went through a dip, car stalls, gets T-bone plowed by a truck.

            Or taking a fast turn, hard on the brakes, lots of keys on he ring, the *weak* switch goes to “OFF” mid turn, and the car goes off-road because of it and into a tree. On top of that, no airbag deploys.

            These things aren’t normally a death sentence.

            Or they were going to crash anyway. The ignition shuts off from pre crash, hard braking and they would have died anyway if they were driving a 67 Nova. But that’s not the point.

          • 0 avatar

            This happened to me in a Malibu on the highway. I was close to an exit and in the right lane, so I was able to coast off the highway to a gas station.

            As I recall, power steering was offline, but the steering wheel was not locked. I don’t remember what the brakes were doing, but I didn’t use them until I was well off the highway.

            Until news of the recall, it never occurred to me that the airbags would have been offline. Would it not make more sense to have the airbags set to work whenever the car is in motion?

            I had no trouble controlling the vehicle. But I was lucky. Conditions were clear, and I had a clean path off the highway. In another lane my day might have gone quite differently.

        • 0 avatar

          According to the facts, GM’s actions led to these people’s deaths. From the article:

          “When asked for comment, GM spokesperson Jim Cain referred to the statement of facts outlined in the company’s settlement with the U.S. Department of Justice. In the agreement, GM acknowledged that it had known about the ignition switch’s flaw, continued to sell defective vehicles, assured the public that its cars were safe, and concealed a “potentially deadly” defect from NHTSA to delay a recall. A lengthy footnote on the agreement’s first page, however, noted the company couldn’t be held liable for any conduct that came before its 2009 bankruptcy. As far as Cooper’s quotes, Cain said, “We’re not going to respond.”

          • 0 avatar

            GM contributed to their deaths, it isn’t at all the same thing as killing someone.

            Look, I’m really just arguing semantics here. Whoever at GM decided to cover this up and weep it under the rug made a terrible decision and deserves to be punished for it, but that isn’t the same as murdering someone. I hope these families get all of the money that’s coming to them, and I hope that manufactures learn not to do crap like this.

            I’ve had vehicles die on me on the road before, at least twice. Not due to an ignition lock, but other mechanical factors. I was fortunate that I was in situations where I could get to safety without trouble, but I realize at the wrong moment that things could have gone very badly for me.

            What GM did was reckless and dangerous. I don’t think it quite rises to the level of intentionally distributing contaminated food though. Admittedly though, it’s close enough that a jury might see it as the same situation.

          • 0 avatar

            FACT: In documentated cases GM’s safety systems failed due to their ineptitude. The how and why of the people who died got into those situations does not enter into the conversation. Passive safety systems must always work. Period.

            In the VW saga as a private citizen I would care more if:

            1. Diesels made up more than 1% of all new cars sales.
            2. Gov’t had set more reasonable NOx standards from the start and VAG still chose to violate them.

          • 0 avatar

            VC, GM’s organizational failure caused them to not act when they should have. More specifically, GM “concealed a “potentially deadly” defect from NHTSA to delay a recall”

            I get that you’re arguing semantics, but their inaction is criminal.

        • 0 avatar

          All the switch failure does is shut off the engine, disable power assist on the steering, potentially lock the steering column, and disable the airbags — and disproportionately often on a washboard road at speed, since that’s when the switch would get vibrated enough to shut off.

          Oh, and always without warning. (Pch, even though I agree with you, this is even worse than shutting off your key at speed because this comes as a surprise.) VC, sure hope you’re alert when the moment arrives for your Sudden Death Driver’s Test.

          Really, now. If the shutoff problem didn’t “directly kill” anyone, how many of the 100+ deaths attributed to it weren’t really “directly” because of it?

          • 0 avatar

            I really didn’t expect my comment to be so controversial!

            I think I’m coming at this from a more philosophical/legal perspective than a lot of folks here, so I’ll try to explain a little bit, but please know I’m not blaming anyone for being mad at GM.

            The reason this whole thing has seemed so unfair is that, as the article mentioned, there aren’t really any criminal laws that address this situation. That’s unfortunate, but even if such laws existed, the burden of proof would make convictions very difficult.

            Let’s focus on DeGiorgio since it looks like he was at the middle of this. He signed the order to fix the ignition switch design, but later lied about it. Which is kind of hilariously sad since he’s quoted as saying he “didn’t lie, cheat, or steal.”

            Okay, this looks easy, right? But what exactly is he guilty of? Barring the discovery that DeGiorgio is secretly a sociopath, he most likely did not intentionally design a defective part, so he didn’t INTEND to kill anyone. That’s important because we discriminate between intentional and unintentional killings in most legal systems.

            The reason we are (and should) be angry with him is that he made a decision that kept these defective parts in cars well after they were discovered to be deficient. Did DeGiorgio know that this could kill people? That’s a difficult question. Common sense says yes, disabling safety system and power-assisted controls during vehicle operation is potentially fatal. I pointed this out in a comment I made somewhere around here very early when all of this first came out.

            Was that a consideration of DeGiorgio’s job though? Was safety a different department’s job? Was he a guy that actually drove himself around and maintained his own cars, or did he just take cabs everywhere? Perhaps he lacked the practice knowledge that would have informed his bad decision? Was his job to not worry about things like this in the first place? These are questions you need to consider in a trial.

            The guy deserves to be punished for what he did. I would love for him to go to prison for knowingly endangering the lives of others. The only thing I’m pretty sure he’s guilty of though is fraud, and that’s kind of disappointing. Maybe a case could be built to establish recklessness and a callous disregard for the safety of others, but as the DoJ said, there’s not really any laws that cover this. Obviously that needs to change.

            As far as holding GM as a company responsible, this is all complicated by the bankruptcy. I’m not really sure if it’s a problem with bankruptcy law, or if it has to do with the legal gymnastics that were done to do the bankruptcy in the fashion that it was done, but unfortunately “new” GM isn’t legal responsible for any of this mess. I suppose you could convince a jury that this isn’t really true, but it would never hold up on appeal.

            Even if this were not the case, GM’s culpability is harder to determine. They have a pretty good case that DeGiorgio failed to follow proper procedures and more or less defrauded them (particularly his shenanigans with the part number that impeded GM’s ability to actually figure out what the problem was). On the other hand, GM encouraged a cooperate culture that made crap like this the usual method for solving “unpleasantness.”

            So it’s easy to say that GM was incompetent, and that should cost them something. Were they reckless? Maybe, but that’s going to be really tough to prove. The company most likely didn’t mean to kill anyone (well, we hope). Did they realize they were contributing to people’s deaths? Should they have realized that? You are welcome to your opinion, but there’s nothing easy about demonstrating that in court.

            Justice is hard work. Hopefully we can learn from all of this and do it better next time. Hopefully DeGiorgio goes to prison somehow. Hopefully all of these families are compensated with millions of dollars.

            I’ve never owned a GM vehicle, and never desired to. I’m down on the long-term future of the company, and I get a good laugh whenever they trip over their own feet. I have no love for GM, I just think that “GM killed people” is slightly too strong of a statement to be considered fair. GM was stupid, incompetent, reckless, etc. “GM killed people” is not true in any sort of a legal sense though, even if it’s kind of pleasing to say.

            As far as VW goes, they are also in trouble for basically the same thing that everyone here is in trouble for: lying. The regulatory system for handling air pollution is, unfortunately VW, more sophisticated and robust than the system for punishing stupid ignition locks. As someone who has to breath air though, I am okay with VW getting punished for what they did.

            Saying that VW is being treated unfairly in comparison to GM is failing to recognize pretty important differences between the two situations. GM should probably have been hit harder than it was, but the legal status of the company makes it difficult for regulators and prosecutors. The intent matters as well. VW intentionally designed an emission system to pollute more than they were allowed, so regulators can have a field day with them. GM was stupid, maybe reckless, but they didn’t try to intentionally harm anyone. If GM intentionally designed a car that could randomly crash, maybe we could complain about fairness. As is, there is just a lot of haziness around the situation. Let’s be happy that GM is at least paying the families.

        • 0 avatar

          The acts of the engineer changing the ignition switch part number’s spring specification without changing the revision level of the part number and GM not recalling that prior version of the part number (of course without any prior revision level) that was the nexus for (alledged) crime.

          If a bridge falls into a river killing 30 people and it is found that the engineering firm that built the bridge changed the steel specifications from the government required specs in order to save money, someone’s going to jail.

        • 0 avatar

          The switch shuts off the ABS, the VSC, the SEATBELT TENSIONERS and THE AIRBAGS. Tell me again how GM didn’t kill anyone?

  • avatar
    Master Baiter

    As someone who has operated various GM products as an owner and renter over the years, it’s painfully obvious that GM is company that pinches pennies at every opportunity. It’s a company run by bean counters, with no passion for making great products; they simply make appliances for Ma and Pa Kettle. Sadly, that attitude resulted in the deaths of some of GM’s customers. It’s a company that deserved to go bankrupt.

    My opinion of GM came into sharp focus after I purchased my first BMW in 1997. As an engineer, I could tell this was a car designed by people passionate about excellence, with little regard to cost as it relates to design and selection of materials. My engineering intuition about the superiority and inferiority of certain brands has served me well for the last 20 years.

    (Now feel free to flame me about how BMW has issues too, blah blah blah…)

    • 0 avatar

      So you know that there’s no engineering excellence going into BMW cars. Es muss nur drei Jahre dauern…that’s the excellence. Sic.

    • 0 avatar

      Curious, what do you think of Ford from and engineering standpoint? Same as GM, penny pinching also?

      • 0 avatar
        Master Baiter

        I’ve never owned a Ford. My dad swore them off in the 70s, so they haven’t been on my radar. Never had a burning desire to buy one. Although I have always liked classic Shelbys.

    • 0 avatar

      I’ll take a dash rattle and a $20 part that fails three times in a row over a car that ‘requires 2 shop hours of programming’ to install a $189.00 battery.

      I also like odometers and climate control screen and radio displays that don’t look like Morse code.

  • avatar

    I typically avoid lawsuit coverage, so I remember this going on, but never sought out much information.

    Very interesting read. It’s easy to blame GM here, but I have a hard time believing that you could not substitute most other car company names in its place.

  • avatar

    I’m sure GM still feels its biggest crime is getting caught…

    • 0 avatar

      Your comment is perfect, and it makes me so sad every time we all are reminded that a number of people lost their lives in those GM cars.

      We’ll never know how many people actually died because of GM’s decision since the survivors of other deceased may not have had the resources to prove that it was GM’s fault that the person died. The burden of proof was on them. Not GM. It was easier to blame the driver.

      And that’s why I think that the VW emissions debacle is not news worthy. No one died. People bought a VW product and were lied to, but no one died.

      The people who chose VW, chose badly. Happens all the time.

      The people who chose GM also chose badly. And some died. That’s a big deal.

      And that’s the difference.

      • 0 avatar

        @ HDC….Just wondering..Takata air bags ? Do we have a stat, on just how many folks were killed ?

        • 0 avatar

          Hey mikey. I have no idea about how many people were killed on account of Takata air bags, but I am reasonably certain that there is ready evidence of the damage that flying shrapnel will inflict on a human body.

          But the evidence is not as readily apparent with the GM ignition switches. Until recently, no accident investigator or reconstructionist thought to look for an ignition switch in the OFF position at the scene of an accident.

          I was surprised to learn that the airbags in our 2015 Sequoia were made in ……. wait for it……. Canada!

      • 0 avatar

        Agreed. I hope this story begins to add some perspective to those who react to VW’s cheating as the worst thing out of Germany since Hitler. Maybe it was, since Germany has been on generally good behavior for a half-century, but VW wasn’t covering up for a critical safety fault. It wasn’t installing faulty airbags, like Toyota and BMW, two makers of sterling repute. And while it was fouling the air with an ozone-generating chemical, those TDIs were also saving about 25% on greenhouse gases over comparable gas engines. So while VW’s sins were bad in principle, their cost is less tangible. TDIs driven in cold, cloudy or rural settings probably did no harm at all, but every GM car with this flawed switch was a danger to every owner, for every mile.

      • 0 avatar

        I object to the statement that “People bought a VW product and were lied to, but no one died.”

        Yes, the deaths are not as easy to trace to the offending cars. But we have pollution laws for a reason: Pollution kills. VW willfully broke the law, and in doing so, made thousands of cars that will demonstrably cause a certain number of people to contract pollution-caused diseases and die. Those victims will be just as dead as GM crash victims.

        To the red herring that VW’s illegal and deliberate pollution was okay because diesels in general were lower in some other pollutants, I’d reply that this would also be true of diesels that, like VW’s competitors, obeyed NOx laws. In addition, VW does not get the liberty to decide which laws about the public health and safety they consider “essential” enough to bother obeying, rather than raking in massive profits by flouting them and then conducting a cover-up.

        GM deserved all the punishment they got and more. So does VW.

  • avatar

    I read the piece last week, it was a featured link from Next Draft.

    The story reads like turning over a rock and discovering a whole world of ants living under there. Then they all start biting you. Something appears weird about an accident and it turns out in order to save a few pennies GM didn’t fix something that killed several people. Worst… they apparently attempted to cover it up, sweeping any and all the documents about it under a rug.

    I was never a GM fan but this really makes me want to avoid them FOREVER.

  • avatar

    Popping up that bowl of popcorn.

  • avatar

    The ignition switch in my 2012 Impala wasn’t defective, but they did issue a recall for the keys. All that was done was to replace the plastic key covers that had the slot molded in for keys with a key cover that just has a simple hole molded in.

    As a precaution, though, I did practice safely pulling over if the key somehow switched off. This wasn’t done on a highway, but on a surface street with no traffic or pedestrians present.

    However, at speed on a freeway all of a sudden when you don’t expect it would be a whole ‘nother story, I’m sure.

    • 0 avatar

      Why didn’t you practice keeping the car on the road, putting the transmission into neutral, and attempting to restart it?

      I grew up driving a bunch of different makes of 1960s and 1970s cars, and I had this down to a science, because having the car die while driving was far more common then than it is now.

      I have had faulty ignition module pickup coils and throttle body injectors that would stop working at a certain temperature, causing the engine to stall. In the early stages of failure, I was able to simply restart the engine and go about my way (and pre-OBD anything, these kinds of random intermittents were wickedly hard to find until they became a hard failure).

      • 0 avatar

        No, no, no…

        GM wants people to practice coming to a safe stop from 70 mph whilst on the highway with no power steering or brakes whilst in heavy traffic…

        …and if you smash into the concrete median barrier and the airbags fail to deploy…

        …too bad!

  • avatar
    SCE to AUX

    I guess we’re going to rehash this again.

    “Almost intentional” is not the same as “intentional”. They were inept.

    The article leaves out a few pertinent facts:

    1. High volume car mfrs don’t receive daily feeds on every crash of their vehicles, complete with police reports and residual black box data. Over 100 people are killed in GM vehicles every week. Who has the resources to check into every one of them for a potential liability issue?

    2. There is a constant to-and-fro with suppliers on a wide variety of issues. It is quite common for parts to go out of spec, and some designs/suppliers are particularly troublesome. Low torque on an ignition switch wouldn’t automatically trigger someone to stop the presses because hundreds of people might die. Instead, it would trigger an engineer to work with the supplier to determine the root cause, and to fix it within corporate constraints.

    3. Many of the early crash reports for the suspect vehicles included issues like bad road conditions, alcohol, no seat belts being worn, and speeding. Nobody would immediately think “ignition switch” when reading about a speeding drunk hitting a tree in a rainstorm with no seatbelt.

    4. Given that so many people are regularly dying in GM cars, and that GM cars are made up of thousands of parts that are all subject to internal monitoring and revision, it is not surprising to the clear-headed that the cause-and-effect of “ignition switches = death” would be very difficult to establish. It’s a needle in a stack of needles.

    Penny-pinching, bad internal communication, and poor engineering all conspired to cause this disaster. But I don’t believe for one minute that GM knowingly let its customers die for the savings of a few dollars. This would be like saying Captain Smith happily rammed the Titanic into the iceberg while yelling “yee-haw!”; there’s much more to the story.

    • 0 avatar

      Such a logical and well thought out response to this situation… if only more people used their heads in your fashion!

    • 0 avatar

      “One document in particular, from the fall of 2004, stood out to Cooper. Just as the 2005 Cobalt was arriving in dealer showrooms, GM program engineering manager Gary Altman’s knee knocked the key out of the on position during a test drive, causing the engine to stall. He reported the problem, confirmed by a subsequent internal investigation, which offered two solutions. The first plan—changing the design to mount the key cylinder in a higher position and lengthening the detent plunger in the ignition switch—was rejected due to cost concerns.”

      Timeline matters and this 2004 report is almost a decade prior to the recall. They didn’t need feedback from crashes because their internal testing found the issue. Where they really failed was recognizing that when the key went off, so did the airbags. He had to be thinking “what happens when the key switches of at 60mph? What systems stop functioning?” That should have been the sign that this wasn’t something they could just do a running engineering change on the detent. IMO, that is when it went from simply being inept to criminal.

    • 0 avatar

      So they just figured all these wrongful death lawsuits were based on a complete fiction? Even though private investigators identified the ignition switch as the cause? These lawsuits date back well into the “Old GM” days. I call BS on this theory.

  • avatar

    The first investigation into the lag in acting upon the bad switches was done by a law firm hired by GM. The report said the engineer that designed the switch became aware of the easy-twist to “off”, redesigned the part to require more torque, and quietly arranged to have the same part number used for the revision. As a result, other engineers were misled as to the old switch’s menace and therefore the solution took longer.

    Has subsequent investigation undermined that report’s analysis?

    Yes, I realize a corporation is responsible for its employees’ misconduct (e.g., the Exxon Valdez).

  • avatar

    “The report said the engineer that designed the switch became aware of the easy-twist to “off”, redesigned the part to require more torque, and quietly arranged to have the same part number used for the revision”

    Aye, there’s the rub. A corporation has the responsibility to train its quality and engineering staff to bring these concerns to management with the knowledge that there will be no repercussions. A corporation can’t just pay lip-service to this, but has to constantly reinforce this culture of quality, especially when the lives of the customers could be in danger.

    That said, if this “culture of quality” is also constantly at odds with profitability and the existence of the company, and an engineer might make that bad decision.

  • avatar

    This reminds me of the last GM car inn my household, a ’69 Firebird. Fresh from the showroom, this teenaged driver launched it over a raised railroad crossing at speed, anticipating “The Dukes of Hazard” by a decade. When the car landed from a tiny jump, the engine died. I wrestled it to a stop, with little steering or brake response, on the straight and lonely road, and sent for a tow truck. The car was ok, once the battery terminals were tightened down, like they weren’t at the factory!

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