NEW YORK – It was nearly five years ago that any doubts were laid to rest among engineers at General Motors Co. about a dangerous and faulty ignition switch. At a meeting on May 15, 2009, they learned that data in the black boxes of Chevrolet Cobalts confirmed a potentially fatal defect existed in hundreds of thousands of cars.
But in the months and years that followed, as an expanding trove of internal documents and studies mounted, GM told the families of accident victims and other customers that it did not have enough evidence of any defect in their cars, interviews, letters and legal documents show. Last month, GM recalled 1.6 million Cobalts and other small cars, saying that if the switch was bumped or weighed down it could shut off the engine’s power and disable air bags.
In one case, GM threatened to come after the family of an accident victim for reimbursement of legal fees if the family did not withdraw its lawsuit. In another instance, it dismissed a family with a terse, formulaic letter, saying there was no basis for claims.
“We sent the paperwork for the car to them and they said there’s nothing to this,” said Neil Kosilla, whose daughter, Amy, 23, died in a Cobalt accident in March 2010 after the air bags failed to deploy. “They said we had nothing.”
Since the engineers’ meeting in May 2009, at least 23 fatal crashes have involved the recalled models, resulting in 26 deaths. GM reported the accidents to the government under a system called Early Warning Reporting, which requires automakers to disclose claims they receive blaming vehicle defects for serious injuries or deaths.
A New York Times review of 19 of those accidents – where victims were identified through interviews with survivors, family members, lawyers and law enforcement officials – found that GM pushed back against families in at least two of the accidents, and reached settlements that required the victims to keep the discussions confidential.
In other instances, GM ignored repeated calls, families said.
“We did call GM,” said Leslie Dueno, whose son, Christopher Hamberg, 18, was killed on June 12, 2009 – not quite a month after the critical May 15 meeting to GM engineers about the ignition data – when he lost control of his 2007 Cobalt. “Nobody ever called me. They never followed up. Ever.”
Last month’s recalls of the Cobalt and five other models encompassed model years 2003 through 2007.
Bloomberg News reported Monday that lawsuits against the firm claim more vehicles are involved than listed in the recall, including Cobalts up to the year 2010, the last year the model was built.
GM faces numerous inquiries, including one by the Justice Department looking into the company’s disclosures in its 2009 bankruptcy filing as well as what it told regulators.
“We are conducting an unsparing, comprehensive review of the circumstances leading to the ignition switch recall,” GM said in a statement Monday. “As part of that review we are examining previous claims and our response to them. If anything changes as a result of our review, we will promptly bring that to the attention of regulators.”
The company has said it has evidence of 12 deaths tied to the switch problem, but it has declined to give details other than to say they all occurred in 2009 or earlier. It says it has no conclusive evidence of more recent deaths tied to the switch.
It was unclear how many of the 26 deaths since the 2009 meeting were related to the faulty ignition, but some appeared to fit patterns that reflected the problem, such as an inexplicable loss of control or air bags that did not deploy.
In fall 2013, months after an eighth internal study on the ignition issue had been issued, GM moved to cut off the flow of damaging depositions related to one accident by settling a wrongful-death suit. The lawsuit had been brought by the family of Jennifer Brooke Melton, 29, who lost control of her 2005 Cobalt in March 2010 when the key moved to the accessory position, shutting down power and air bags.
During the depositions, Lance Cooper, a lawyer for the Melton family, deposed Victor Hakim, a senior manager at GM. Cooper read more than 80 customer complaints into the official record that were filed with GM beginning in 2005 about Cobalts that had unexpectedly stopped and stalled.
GM settled the case on Sept. 13. Under the terms of the settlement, the details are confidential.
That same month, lawyers representing GM wrote to the lawyer in another wrongful-death case demanding that the lawsuit be withdrawn. The family of Allen Ray Floyd had sued GM after Floyd lost control of a 2006 Cobalt near Loris, S.C. Two weeks earlier, his sister had lost control of the same vehicle on the same road; she had it towed. The company contended the suit was “frivolous” because the accident occurred on July 3, 2009, a week before the company’s bankruptcy agreement took effect, which meant GM was not liable for damages.
“They sent us a letter in September telling us to drop our case or else they’d come after us,” said William Jordan, the family’s lawyer. “They were going to come after me for sanctions, to pay their attorneys’ fees.”
By the end of 2007, GM had examined data from nine “sensing and diagnostic modules” of crashed vehicles. In four cases, the ignition was in the accessory position. But it was not until May 15, 2009, that GM engineers verified the data. That day, they met with officials from its supplier firm Continental, which manufactured the Cobalt’s black boxes. By then GM had recovered 14 modules; according to Continental, the ignition was in the accessory position on seven of the 14 cases. This appears to be the first proven link between a faulty switch and deactivated air bags. There is no indication that the engineers shared this finding with supervisors or executives. Two weeks later, the company filed for bankruptcy.
After more study, by Oct. 29, 2013, GM could no longer ignore that something was very wrong with the switches.
GM officials met that day with supplier Delphi. Records showed beyond any doubt that substandard ignition switches had been made for the Cobalt at a Delphi plant from 2004 to late 2006. The part had been changed, and every switch made before the change was potentially a fatal accident waiting to happen.
Confirmation of the change was presented Dec. 17 to the senior Field Performance Evaluation Review Committee, a group so powerful that Mary T. Barra, the head of global product development who was named chief executive a month later, knew of the meeting.
Yet it was six weeks later, on Jan. 31, before that review committee directed a recall. And still another two weeks, Feb. 13, before GM announced that it was recalling 778,000 vehicles for a safety defect. The number of vehicles was more than doubled to 1.6 million on Feb. 24.