It was nearly five years ago that any doubts were laid to rest among engineers at General Motors 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 23-year-old daughter, Amy, 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 one of those cases, the company settled a lawsuit brought by the family of Hasaya Chansuthus, 25, who crashed her 2006 Cobalt in Murfreesboro, Tenn. After resisting, the company negotiated a deal even though Chansuthus’ blood-alcohol level was more than twice the legal limit. Data from the black box — which records vehicle systems information — showed that the key was in the accessory or off position, according to court documents, and the air bags did not deploy. (The accessory position turns off the car, disabling the air bags, but allows certain electronics, like the radio, to run.) The terms of the settlement are confidential.
In other instances, GM ignored repeated calls, families said.
“We did call GM,” said Leslie Dueno, whose 18-year-old son, Christopher Hamberg, was killed on June 12, 2009 — not quite a month after the critical May 15 meeting to GM engineers about the ignition data — driving his 2007 Cobalt home before dawn in Houston. He lost control at 45 mph and hit a curb, then a tree, the police report said. “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. 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.
“We are doing our best to get this right, which means reviewing the data with care,” the company said in its statement. “Not every Cobalt accident is a result of a faulty ignition switch. Accident claims and EWR” — Early Warning Reporting — “data are unique with their own set of facts and other relevant factors. It is wrong to use this information on a speculative basis. Each requires additional analysis and this will be a part of our review.”
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 some cases, the drivers had put themselves at risk, including having high blood-alcohol levels or texting.
Still, by the time Benjamin Hair, 20, crashed into a tree in Charlottesville, Va., on Dec. 13, 2009, while driving a Pontiac G5 home that Sunday morning, GM had conducted five internal studies about the ignition problem, company records indicate.
Though Hair was wearing his seatbelt, he died after the car’s air bags failed to deploy. His parents were baffled. “The police couldn’t tell us what caused the accident,” said Brenda Hair, his mother. The Hairs contacted GM for answers, providing accident reports but no vehicle data, because the car’s black box had been destroyed. “They came back and said they’d presented it to their board of engineers, and they couldn’t say it was related” to a defect, Brenda Hair said.
By then, employees who knew about the switch problems ranged across the company, from its legal offices at headquarters in Detroit to its test tracks and research labs outside the city. GM lawyers had known of one fatal Cobalt accident in 2005, and they had settled or worked on several cases. GM’s sales department had issued two service bulletins to dealers related to faulty switches, advising them to tell customers to drive without heavy key chains that could jostle the ignition and shut down the car.
On the manufacturing side, the ignition switch as well as the key had been modified for new cars in the middle of model production in late 2006 or early 2007 — an unusual move for such a high-volume part.
By summer 2010, GM had ended production of Cobalts. Around the same time, three company representatives traveled to a scrapyard in Scranton, Pa., to remove the black box from 2005 Cobalt that crashed in January 2010, killing 21-year-old Kelly Erin Ruddy. Her mother, Mary, accompanied them. A few days later, on Aug. 4, Ruddy received a voice mail message from a GM claims administrator named Jemeia Price. In the message, which Mary Ruddy played for a reporter, Price said that though she had spoken with Ruddy before, she would not be able to speak again.
“Unfortunately, if you happen to leave me any more messages I won’t be returning those calls,” said the voice mail. “All communication needs to go through your attorney.”
The Ruddys never sued the company, Ruddy said, because their lawyer advised them that it would be an expensive and ultimately futile battle.
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 suit had been brought by the family of Jennifer Brooke Melton, 29, who lost control of her 2005 Cobalt on a Georgia highway 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 in daylight 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.”
Jordan added: “We looked at the prospect of going into bankruptcy court and duking it out with them and looking at the language of the bankruptcy legislation, and it just seemed to be such a big undertaking. We decided to capitulate.”
Consumer complaints and claims came to the company in a variety of ways — through lawsuits, calls, letters and emails, warranty claims, or insurance claims. GM’s legal staff was the recipient of lawsuits, insurance information, accident reports and any other litigation-related paperwork. But warranty claims and customer calls were routed through the sales and service division — a vast bureaucracy that occupies most of one tower at GM’s headquarters in Detroit. Because the legal staff reports to the chief executive, and the sales department to the head of GM North America, it is unclear whether they share information related to a specific car, like the Cobalt.
And an even bigger communication gap on the Cobalt appeared to exist between the engineers in Warren, Mich., and the company lawyers in downtown Detroit. The most glaring example was that GM officials meeting with federal regulators in March 2007 did not know about a fatal Cobalt wreck in 2005 — even though GM’s legal department had had an open file on the case for almost two years.
Within the product development system was an isolated, subgroup of engineers assigned to Cobalt safety tests. According to the chronology GM has submitted to federal safety regulators, an unknown number of engineers were involved in opening — and closing — four inquiries on the Cobalt between 2004 and 2009. Engineers also performed four other analyses.
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 diagnostic modules, or black boxes. By then GM had recovered 14 modules, and 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. One reason may have been distraction: 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 on 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 not for another six weeks, on Jan. 31, that the 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.
In recent weeks, the parents of Benjamin Hair, the 20-year-old from Virginia killed in December 2009, received a postcard from GM announcing the recall. It was one of dozens of letters about their son’s car that the company has sent since the crash.
“How many times do I have to tell them?” his mother said. “We don’t have the car, and we don’t have our son.”