By Linda Sandler
and Laurel Brubaker Calkins
General Motors will have to tell owners of 2.59 million recalled small cars to “park it” if customers suing the automaker convince a judge faulty ignition switches linked to 13 deaths make them too dangerous to drive.
U.S. District Judge Nelva Gonzales Ramos in Corpus Christi, Texas, was to consider forcing the company to adopt what the customers call a “fail-safe solution” to prevent further accidents while the switches are replaced.
The request for a park-it order was made in connection with a proposed class-action lawsuit seeking as much as $10 billion for the lost value of Chevrolet Cobalts and other small car models recalled this year. GM is facing lawsuits by car owners as well as lawsuits involving injuries and deaths as it seeks to address criticism it knew of the defect for at least a decade and failed to correct it.
GM Chief Executive Officer Mary Barra fielded pointed questions and accusations from Congress this week, with one senator saying GM had a “culture of cover-up” and another predicting it may face criminal liability. GM focused on costs in the past and now makes the customer “our compass,” she told House and Senate members probing GM’s conduct.
Barra met at the company’s Washington offices with families of accident victims.
Barra circled the table and shook hands with each of the 22 family members, apologizing personally as CEO and listening to each of their stories of loss, according to Bob Hilliard, an attorney for plaintiffs in two lawsuits against the Detroit-based automaker who organized the session.
Asked by families at the meeting about the possibility of a park-it warning, Hilliard said the cars can be driven safely.
GM faces an investigation by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and a possible criminal probe. Vehicles from the mid-2000s with the defective switches include some Chevrolet HHRs as well as Opel, Pontiac and Saturn models.
At least 15 lawsuits have been filed in federal courts by owners of the recalled models who seek to represent other GM customers in class-action cases alleging they wouldn’t have bought the cars, or paid less for them, had they known about the defect.
Lawyers in one of those lawsuits are seeking to have the cases consolidated and handled by the judge overseeing Toyota’s sudden acceleration litigation, which resulted in a $1.63 billion settlement. U.S. District Judge James Selna in Santa Ana, Calif., is uniquely experienced and positioned to manage the GM case, according to a request to consolidate the lawsuits filed with the Judicial Panel on Multidistrict Litigation in Washington.
In the Corpus Christi, Texas, case, Charles and Grace Silvas, who own a 2006 Cobalt, sued GM March 14 for allegedly concealing the defects and reducing the car’s resale price because the engines can stop running if the key is jostled or weighed down. They seek to represent other vehicle owners in a class-action, or group lawsuit.
GM has said it faces $750 million in first-quarter charges for recalls, including repair and rental costs.