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GM probe blames incompetence for long delay in deadly defect case

Mother of one Maryland victim wonders if she can trust company's report

By Jerry Hirsch and Jamie Smith Hopkins, The Baltimore Sun

6:14 PM EDT, June 5, 2014

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General Motors released a scathing probe Thursday about long-running ignition-switch problems in its cars that have resulted in at least 13 deaths. But Laura Christian, whose daughter Amber Rose died at the wheel of one of those cars, wonders whether it went far enough.

"For GM to have known about this issue for so many years, I'm not sure that I or anyone can trust what GM is saying," said Christian, a Harwood resident who is suing the automaker and has organized other families affected by ignition defects in the company's cars.

The company-commissioned investigation, released Thursday, isn't complimentary. It concluded that a pervading atmosphere of incompetence and neglect at GM led the company to allow a deadly problem to fester for 11 years before anyone acted to correct it.

But the report, by former U.S. Attorney Anton Valukas, did not find a GM conspiracy to cover up the facts or evidence that employees made a trade-off between safety and cost. It blamed poor judgment by some employees and a lack of communication within the company.

GM Chief Executive Mary Barra dismissed 15 people as a result of the investigation into why the automaker delayed recalling defective cars. Five other GM employees were disciplined.

The report absolved Barra and other top executives of charges that they failed to act, saying that the information about the problem did not reach their level of the company until January.

In the probe, more than 350 interviews were conducted with over 230 people at GM and its suppliers. It also reviewed more than 41 million documents to examine why the automaker waited until this year to correct the problem in about 2.6 million Chevrolet Cobalts and other small cars, mostly from the 2003 to 2007 model years.

"Overall, the report found that, from start to finish, the Cobalt saga was riddled with failures, which led to tragic results for many," Barra told 1,200 employees Thursday at the automaker's Tech Center in Warren, Mich.

GM still faces investigations into the ignition-switch problem by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, the Justice Department and Congress.

Some in Congress saw the company's probe as a whitewash. Sen. Richard Blumenthal, a Connecticut Democrat, called it "the best report money can buy."

"It absolves upper management, denies deliberate wrongdoing and dismisses corporate culpability," he said.

For her part, Christian said she's particularly interested in what the Justice Department will find.

She reunited with her daughter a decade ago after giving Amber up for adoption. The girl died the next year at age 16 while driving her Cobalt. The air bags didn't deploy.

Drivers were killed or injured in cars with the defect because the ignition switch suddenly flipped out of the "run" position in certain conditions — such as driving on rough roads or when the driver had an especially heavy key ring. That disabled key functions such as the air bags and power steering.

At least 13 deaths have resulted, and likely more, according to federal regulators.

Christian, a former federal investigator, said she believes at least 120 deaths are linked to the defect, based on police reports and other information supplied by families. She started a Facebook page in March — shortly after GM announced ignition-switch recalls — to connect with others in the same situation.

She wants to see criminal charges brought against GM employees. The company disclosed this year that it received reports of the defect before her daughter died.

"Anyone who knew and did nothing should be held liable," Christian said.

Congressional panels, meanwhile, are examining why the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration didn't step in to force GM to recall the defective cars.

"I won't be letting GM leadership or federal regulators escape accountability for these tragedies," said Sen. Claire McCaskill, a Missouri Democrat.

The chairwoman of the Senate's Consumer Protection subcommittee said she would hold a follow-up hearing this summer.

GM has fixed about 113,000 of the millions of cars with the faulty switches but because of a parts shortage won't complete repairs on all of the cars until October. GM has warned drivers to operate the vehicles with only a single key until they are repaired.

Bob Hilliard, an attorney with the Texas law firm Hilliard Munoz Gonzales, said he represents clients in more than 750 cases involving GM cars with recalled ignitions, including 70 deaths and 122 catastrophic injuries. Christian is among his clients.

He called it "mind-boggling" that GM would tell customers to just take keys off key chains. It would have been better to issue a warning to stop using the cars until they can be fixed and offer loaner vehicles in the meantime, he said.

Hilliard doesn't think GM held the right people responsible.

"If you're going to change a culture, you don't fire the folks who were simply following the culture you created, you go to the head of the snake," he said.

In her remarks to GM employees and at a later news conference, Barra said she could not explain why engineers at GM approved a switch for the cars that did not meet the company's performance standards.

GM had two designs for the switch but went with the less expensive option in 2001, when it was designing the vehicles.

In 2006, GM suddenly started to install the beefier design in the vehicles. But the company did not change the part number or notify safety regulators that it had made the change, which Barra said should have been the normal procedure.

Barra said those judged to have participated in misconduct were among the group of terminated employees.

Among those fired were Ray DeGiorgio, who led the team that developed the switch and approved the later change to the more robust part, and Gary Altman, who directed Cobalt's engineering team.

"Repeatedly," Barra said, "individuals failed to disclose critical pieces of information that could have fundamentally changed the lives of those impacted by a faulty ignition switch."

GM's ignition-switch issue prompted the company to review and change the process by which it decides to recall cars. It now looks at how a problem with one system in the car might cascade into the rest of the vehicle's operation, said Mark Reuss, GM's global product development chief.

The automaker placed Jeff Boyer in the new position of vice president for global vehicle safety, making him responsible for the safety systems of GM vehicles, evaluation of their safety performance and all recalls. It created a program that recognizes employees for making safety suggestions and speaking up when they see problems.

"Together, we have to understand that the attitudes and practices that allowed this failure to occur will not be tolerated," Barra said.

Jerry Hirsch is a reporter for Tribune Newspapers.

jhopkins@baltsun.com