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Michael Phelan
Michael Phelan
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GM Recalls: A Lesson for Trial Judges

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In February, General Motors began recalling 2.6 million small cars due to a defective ignition switch.  For at least a decade prior to the GM recall, GM adamantly denied that its small car ignition switches were defective.  In each of the known fatal crashes, which now appear to have been caused by a defective ignition switch, GM’s strategy was to blame the victim, threaten the family, and threaten the attorneys who filed lawsuits on behalf of the family.  GM now admits that as early as 2001 it had evidence that the ignition switch could, if jostled, suddenly shut off the power in a moving car, impeding steering and braking systems and disabling air bags.

An investigation by the New York Times found that GM has interpreted black box data from crashes involving GM small cars and identified 13 deaths caused by faulty ignition switches.  At this point, it would be foolish to simply accept GM’s fatality numbers.  Nonetheless, 13 deaths is the largest number of deaths linked to an automobile safety issue in the United States since the recall of Ford vehicles with Firestone tires in 2000.  The New York Times found that the victims died in 10 separate accidents in nine states and Canada.  The crashes occurred from July 4, 2004 to June 22, 2013.  Each was a single-car crash in which the driver lost control and slammed head-on into a tree or some other object.   In every case, the airbag did not deploy.

Some law enforcement officials say the information the automaker withheld might have changed their investigations. GM now acknowledges that the defective ignition switch contributed to at least 47 accidents (a recent revision from its earlier tally of 32), including those that caused the 13 deaths.

Peter Asplund, a former state police trooper in Texas who responded to one of the fatalities, said that had he known about the ignition flaw, “in essence that would change everything.”  The driver in the 2004 crash that Trooper Asplund investigated, Candice Anderson, survived the crash.  Her boyfriend, Gene Erickson, died in the crash.  Ms. Anderson was 21 years of age at the time of the crash and has been blaming herself ever since, partly because she was initially charged with manslaughter.  GM knew otherwise, and waited until 2014 to admit the truth.  Trooper Asplund investigated Ms. Anderson’s case in a vacuum.  He would have benefited from what GM knew but decided to hide from the public about the defect and about other similar incidents involving defective ignition switches.  GM was perfectly willing to let police officials in each state stumble through these investigations on a case-by-case basis.

Likewise, GM’s litigation strategy in past cases alleging defective ignition switches has been to blame the driver and to fight all efforts to discover evidence of other similar incidents.  In far too many cases, judges across the country side with manufacturers like GM and refuse to make them produce files and data about other similar incidents.  Why shouldn’t jurors know what GM has known about this defect since 2001?  Why shouldn’t jurors in the case involving the thirteenth fatality know about the 12 previous similar incidents?  Maybe if juries had this information early on, people wouldn’t still be dying as a result of this product defect in 2013.  The Seventh Amendment to our Constitution guarantees every individual the right to trial by jury, even if they are seeking redress against a Goliath like GM.  The Goliaths have formed powerful lobbying groups, and hope to take from all individuals their Seventh Amendment rights.  Manufacturers’ associations and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce dream of a day when all individuals are force to have their civil disputes heard by arbitration panels packed with industry members.  Until our Seventh Amendment rights have been eroded completely, the courts remain the best venue for forcing corporations to make safer products.  In a free market, car purchasers will stop buying GMs when they learn that GM vehicles are defective.  Throughout the history of the automobile industry, one of the primary sources of information about vehicle defects has been through products liability lawsuits.  This system will continue to work if judges choose to force manufacturers to produce evidence of their knowledge of product defects, including of prior similar incidents.  The courts must promote transparency over obfuscation.

Even today, after recalling 2.6 million vehicles, GM refuses to share its interpretation of the black box data from these ignition defect crashes.  It also refuses to release the details of the 13 crashes and the names of the victims, even to survivors of the crashes and relatives of the victims.  Manufacturers like GM will never change voluntarily.

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  1. M. Griffin says:
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    “Some law enforcement officials say the information the automaker withheld might have changed their investigations. GM now acknowledges that the defective ignition switch contributed to at least 47 accidents (a recent revision from its earlier tally of 32), including those that caused the 13 deaths.” This is a prime example of why it’s difficult to uncover the truth.

  2. Parris Boyd says:
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    GM remains secretive, obnoxious… just like its counterpart in crime, Toyota. Punishment in terms of dollars doesn’t work. As a preview of similar things to come with GM, acknowledged crook Toyota is now being allowed to ignore compelling evidence of electronic defects in its throttle control. What’s needed is PRISON time for a few of these murderous auto executives, along with a few “regulators” at NHTSA. Too bad the government – including the “Just Us” Department – is owned by corporate interests. I’ve been blogging about the Washington gang’s efforts to protect its crooked friends in the auto industry. Search “Beware of Toyota. Their next victim may be YOU…”