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Holding GM officials liable for defect proves difficult

In February, General Motors began its recall of 2.6 million vehicles because of a dangerous defect with the ignition switch on several models including the Chevrolet Cobalt and the Saturn Ion.

Since then, it has become clear that GM knew about the defect — which has caused numerous fatal car accidents — as early as 2004.

In addition to filing personal injury lawsuits against GM, the families of the victims who were killed as a result of the defect that caused vehicles to disabled and cut off power to systems such as power steering and airbags want GM officials to be criminally prosecuted for putting the public in danger. 

At hearings with the families, GM officials and members of Congress in Washington D.C. last week, a senator who is a former state prosecutor said she didn’t see GM’s behavior as “anything but criminal.”

Evidence was presented that GM officials knew that the ignition switch defect could result in airbags failing to deploy in accidents, but did not disclose the information to safety officials.

Although the company claims that GM executives didn’t know about the ignition switch problem until last year, GM has acknowledged that engineers proposed a fix for the defect in 2004 and 2005, but action was never taken to implement the changes.

Evidence also suggested that at least one GM employee intentionally tried to cover up the fact that a problem existed with the ignition switches back in 2006.

This person could potentially face criminal liability, a Georgetown University law professor said, after being “caught in a lie,” but criminal charges against other employees may be tougher to pursue.

That’s because it is difficult to determine if false statements were made intentionally, legal experts say. As a result, it would be easier to punish the corporation as a whole rather than charge individual employees with crimes.

Additionally, accident victims and their families could have trouble pursuing personal injury claims against GM because of the company’s bankruptcy, which may protect it from any negligence that occurred prior to 2009.

However, it is likely that personal injury attorneys will work hard to get accident victims and their families the compensation they deserve as a result of this appalling safety oversight.

Source: New Jersey Herald, “Angry families want GM prosecuted for defects,” Tom Krisher and Paul Wiseman, April 6, 2014

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