Faulty Ignition Switch Associated with 13 GM Driver Deaths

Federal safety regulators have received hundreds of complaints over the past 11 years about General Motors (GM) vehicles that allegedly shut down when being driven, leading to potential dangerous and deadly outcomes.

A recent The New York Times investigation revealed that GM allegedly did not then conduct an investigation and has announced its vehicles are associated with 13 deaths and that it must recall 1.6 million cars worldwide. An analysis of the 260 consumer complaints made to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) indicated that, since February 2003, the NHTSA has received approximately two complaints monthly over possibly dangerous vehicle shutdowns, but responded that there was not enough evidence to conduct a safety investigation, the Times wrote. The last recorded complaint was filed last week.

All of the complaints involve six GM models that are being recalled over defective ignition switches that may abruptly shut the vehicles’ engines off, cause power systems to stop working, and disable air bags. The first of the recall notices was issued late last week to vehicle owners, according to the Times.

“When the vehicle shuts down, it gives no warning, it just does it,” wrote the 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, also writing about the 2005 Chevrolet Cobalt indicated that, “Engine stops while driving—cannot steer nor brake so controlling the car to a safe stop is very dangerous,” the Times reported.

The Times also reported that the NHTSA responded with what it described as “formulaic” letters, including a letter to then-Massachusetts Congressman, Barney Frank in 2010. The former Congressman was writing in response to a concerned constituent whose 2006 Cobalt was repeatedly stalling. The Times wrote that the response indicated that the agency reviewed its database of complaints to determine if a “safety defect trend” existed and indicated that, “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 one of her letters to GM customer service and to the NHTSA in June 2005. The letter cited three occasions in which her daughter’s brand new 2005 Cobalt suddenly shut down when she was driving. “I don’t recall them ever responding,” Ms. Denti said in an interview with the Times last week. The family ended the lease after the third stall. “I ended up owing thousands of dollars extra,” Samantha Denti, the daughter, said.

According to GM, the ignition defect may have been responsible for 31 accidents and 13 deaths. The automaker has not disclosed the names of those who died and other crash details, but has indicated that it had been “involved in claims and lawsuits” related to the ignition problem, according to the Times. GM has not yet released 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. Her 21-year-old daughter, Kelly, was killed on January 10, 2010 while driving a 2005 Chevrolet Cobalt. Ms. Ruddy’s complaints did not specify stalling issues and are, therefore, not counted in the review. And, said Ms. Ruddy, although she made many requests to have the car’s “black box” returned, it has not been sent back to her, 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 has only received an “air bag deployment report” that she described as being incomprehensible to her and her attorney. Ms. Ruddy also told the Times that she did receive NHTSA form letters 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,” Ms. Ruddy told the Times.

The Associated Press (AP) reported that the NHTSA issued a 27-page order that demands that GM release documents, and an array of other data, indicating what it knew about the dangerous ignition issue, as well as what it learned about the problem. The NHTSA indicated that it is trying to understand if GM delayed its response or withheld evidence, either of which may cost the automaker fines of up to $35 million. Automakers must advise the agency within five days of learning about 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). GM then 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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