Death Toll in GM Ignition Switch Recall Likely to Rise

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Much has been said about GM’s recent ignition switch recall but it seems that one element is always present in each report: the number of deaths. Most reports mention that 13 people have been killed because it helps us quantify and understand the loss that negligent or reckless actions can have. However despite the ubiquity of the figure, it seems that few sources explain where that number came from or whom was responsible for its calculation.

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Where Did the GM Death Toll Estimate Come from?

To begin with, the death toll due to the GM ignition switch failures is still only an estimate. Additional investigations are ongoing which could reveal that additional deaths were caused by this defect. However the true reason for the use of this figure is because it is GM’s internal count of the deaths. Perhaps expectedly, their internal count is fairly restrictive in its restrictions for what qualifies as a recall-related death. Their restrictions include:

  • Those killed while sitting in the backseat have not been counted.
  • Those killed in front-passenger seats where an airbag were not counted.
  • Only counting those individuals killed when the airbag failed to deploy.

GM’s methodology excludes a potentially sizable class of individuals killed due to the   ignition switch defect. People may have been in a fatal collision due to a stall or loss of control that had nothing to do with whether the airbag deployed properly. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) officials expect that their agency will find more than 13 deaths when its report is released.

Where are Investigators Looking?

Democratic House investigators have released a list of those they have initially identified as being killed due to the GM ignition switch defect. A number of these individuals are not counted by GM. One of these individuals thus far unaccounted for is a 18 year-old woman, Natasha Weigel, from St. Croix County. The woman and her friend were passengers in a Chevy Cobalt that experienced the ignition switch defect leading to a collision that killed both the woman and her friend. However GM only counts the friend’s death in its tally. The reason? Natasha was sitting in the back seat of the vehicle meaning that there was no airbag failure that contributed to her death. However, but for the ignition switch failure that could have caused the loss of control of the vehicle, the accident never would have happened. This is just one example where GM’s counting methodology appears to be unnecessarily restrictive and exclusive.

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In response to reports from federal investigators, GM CEO Mary Barra announced the dismissal of 15 employees and disciplinary action was opted for in the cases of 5 employees. Reasons cited for the dismissals included incompetence, misconduct and failures in job performance. Barra stated some employees claimed they believed that the ignition switch issue was one of customer satisfaction rather than one of safety. Barra conceded that this issue was “misdiagnosed”. However, overlooking such basic functionality of the vehicle and its safety features when a defect was detected  is simply inexcusable.

Despite this conduct GM President Dan Ammann has stated that GM does not intend to waive any protections that it may have acquired due to its 2009 bankruptcy proceedings. Rather the company has set up a compensation program to pay the families of victims provided that they waive their legal right to bring further action. However, it has based the size of the compensation fund, at least in part, on then number of those killed.

GM has already been ordered to pay a $35 million fine by safety regulators – the maximum fine allowed by law for a single violation. Congress and the NHTSA have ongoing investigations into this matter. Further there is a criminal probe inquiring into whether the delays and other actions may constitute criminal actions. Families of those killed have filed wrongful death lawsuits against GM.

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