Federal investigators launch criminal probe of 303 deaths linked to GM recall of ignition switches

by Michael Heygood

The FBI and the U.S. Attorney General’s office in New York have opened a criminal probe into the recall of 1.6 million General Motors vehicles in February 2014. Federal investigators are trying to determine whether GM may have violated federal law by waiting for years after learning of a problem with the vehicles’ ignition switches before issuing the recall notice.

According to GM, the ignition switch on certain Chevrolet, Pontiac, and Saturn models can switch from the “run” position to the “accessory” or “off” positions while the vehicle is being driven, causing certain safety systems—including power steering and airbags—to stop working. At least 303 deaths have been linked to auto accidents linked to the ignition switch problem that led to the GM recall, according to a recent report by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

Although GM has stated that it was aware of ignition switch problems with its vehicles as early as 2001, the company waited until February 2014—more than a decade—before it issued the recall. According to GM, an engineering inquiry was opened by the company to investigate the problem, but was closed after GM decided that it would take too long and cost too much to fix.

GM has failed to answer questions as to why the company waited so long to address this safety problem with its vehicles after they had already gone on sale. Although the company acknowledged the issue in a 2005 service bulletin to dealers, GM did not tell dealers to fix the ignition switch problem before the vehicles were sold or to alert buyers that there was an issue with the car.

Investigations into this problem with GM vehicles have found that the company redesigned the ignition switch used on the recalled vehicles sometime during 2006 in order to address the risk of safety issues. However, the company failed to alert drivers about the potential dangers associated with their vehicles until the first recall notice was issued in February 2014.

GM says that the ignition switch on certain Chevrolet Cobalt, Pontiac G5s, Saturn Ion, Chevrolet HHR SUVs, Pontiac Solstice, and Saturn Sky model years can be accidentally switched from the ”run” position when bumped or if a driver has a heavy key ring. When this problem occurs, the vehicles will have no power steering or power brakes. Seat belts and airbags on the vehicles will also fail to operate properly, putting drivers and passengers at an increased risk of injury in the event of a crash.

GM is facing pressure from lawmakers and consumer groups over its alleged failure to issue a timely recall notice in response to the ignition switch problems with its vehicles. Congressional committees have promised to hold hearings about GM’s behavior in connection with the recall. Two major consumer safety groups—the Center for Auto Safety and Public Citizen—have also called for GM to establish a $1 billion fund to compensate victims of accidents involving the recalled vehicles.

Crashworthiness Lawsuit Filed Against GM Over Fatal Accident

Information about ignition switch failure with the recalled GM vehicles came to light, in part, because of a civil lawsuit filed against the automaker by the family of a Georgia woman who died in a car accident in 2010. Brooke Melton was killed near Atlanta when she lost control of her 2005 Chevy Cobalt, skidding into another lane and hitting another vehicle.

Melton’s parents contacted an attorney, who had a “black box dump” performed on her vehicle to retrieve data collected by the car’s internal computers in the three seconds before the crash. This data confirmed that the ignition switch on Melton’s Chevrolet Cobalt had been switched from the “run” position while she was driving the vehicle, making it nearly impossible for her to control the vehicle at the time of her crash.

According to service reports, Melton had taken her vehicle in for repair at a GM dealership just days before the fatal accident. Melton told the GM dealership that the engine on her Chevy Cobalt had shut off while she was driving, but technicians did not replace the ignition switch on her vehicle. After getting the car back from the dealership on March 9, Melton was killed in an accident on March 10.

Depositions collected in the Melton family’s lawsuit against GM helped to determine that the automaker knew about ignition switch problems with its vehicles years before they were eventually recalled. After reaching a confidential settlement with the family last year, GM recalled more than a million vehicles in February 2014.

Help With Your Accident Claim from An Experienced Attorney

Car and truck manufacturers like GM have an obligation to build vehicles that are as safe as possible under both current design standards and any reasonably foreseeable use. If you or a loved one have been seriously hurt in a car accident, the injuries that occurred because of the crash may have been caused or made worse because the vehicle was not properly designed or manufactured. In order to determine whether you may have a case, it is important retain experienced, qualified legal counsel at the earliest opportunity.

The lawyers at Heygood, Orr & Pearson have the experience and knowledge to pursue product defect claims against any of the major auto manufacturers. Contact our law firm for your free case evaluation and to learn more from an experienced attorney about your legal right to compensation. You can reach us by calling toll-free at 1-877-446-9001, or by following the link to the free case evaluation form on our website.

by Michael Heygood

Michael Heygood is a licensed attorney and partner at HO&P who focuses on insurance and corporate litigation, and other civil arenas. Michael has been named multiple times to the Super Lawyers List.