By Brent Snavely
and Nathan Bomey
Detroit Free Press
General Motors faces tough questions as it grapples with a massive recall of several models with faulty ignition switches and a new investigation announced by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.
On Wednesday, NHTSA sent GM a 27-page order requesting specifics, by April 3, on steps the company took to investigate engineering concerns and consumer complaints dating from 2004.
The automaker could face civil and criminal penalties as the agency’s investigation unfolds. Though NHTSA has never levied criminal penalties before in a recall case, it was given the power by Congress in 2000 as a result of the Ford Explorer’s rollover problems with Firestone tires.
NHTSA said it will examine “the timeliness of GM’s recall” and wants “to determine whether GM properly followed the legal processes and requirements for reporting recalls.” The defect has been connected to 13 deaths over a decade and now involves 1.37 million cars.
The recall now includes 2005-07 model year Chevrolet Cobalts and Pontiac G5s, 2003-07 Saturn Ions, 2006-07 Chevrolet HHRs and 2006-07 Pontiac Solstice and Saturn Skys.
A similar investigation into Toyota’s recalls for unintended acceleration resulted in a $17.5 million fine — the highest in history for the agency.
GM said it will “cooperate fully.” GM apologized for the way it handled the situation, but it has not acknowledged any wrongdoing.
The defect cited involves an ignition switch in the steering column that can be jarred out of place by a heavy key chain or after being hit by a knee or other object. The switch can fail and cause the car to turn off and its air bags to no longer operate. GM has acknowledged issues with the switch and said they should be replaced.
GM’s reputation also is on the line as it navigates the highly charged publicity and works to answer questions from car owners across the nation worried about safety.
An automaker risks its reputation when it delays or resists a recall — especially when the defect can be linked to deaths.
Chrysler seems to have emerged relatively unscathed from its recall last year of 1.56 million model-year Jeep Grand Cherokees from 1993-98 and Jeep Libertys from 2002-07, after initially refusing NHTA’s request to recall the SUVs. Last September, the automaker said the recall would cost an estimated $151 million.
Sean Kane, founder and president of Safety Research & Strategies, predicted NHTSA would focus on the timeliness of the recall, in part because it took GM about a decade to take action.
“In this case, there is ample evidence that GM did not issue the recall [in] a timely fashion,” Kane said.
A defense attorney for the family of one of the crash victims that received a confidential settlement said Wednesday he thinks criminal penalties should be levied against the company.
“It’s our position that criminal penalties should be considered,” said Georgia attorney Lance Cooper, who represented the estate of pediatric nurse Brooke Melton, who was killed in an accident in Georgia.
Cooper said the Transportation Recall Enhancement, Accountability and Documentation Act, which Congress enacted in 2000, allows the government to enact criminal penalties when an automaker intentionally hides information about a recall.
GM initially announced its recall for the Chevrolet Cobalt and Pontiac G5s in February. It has added four more models, more than doubling the number of cars involved.
“The chronology shows that the process employed to examine this phenomenon was not as robust as it should have been,” GM North America President Alan Batey said in a statement. “We are deeply sorry, and we are working to address this issue as quickly as we can.”