The number of people killed in accidents linked to faulty ignition switches in General Motors’ vehicles has hit 21, according to a report released earlier today by a lawyer working for the program to compensate victims of accidents caused by the part.
As reported by Reuters, since August 1, 675 claims “for serious injuries or death said to have been caused by the switch had been received by the program.” The statistics from the law office also show the 21 death claims which had been deemed eligible, as well as 16 claims for serious physical injuries.
As of Friday, 143 death claims had been filed with the program.
Earlier this year, GM recalled 2.6 million vehicles over the faulty ignition switch, which can slip out of position, disabling the airbags and causing the vehicle to stall and lose power steering and braking capabilities.
GM executives not only had knowledge of the faulty ignition switches as far back as 2004, but emails obtained by Reuters showed that the parts could have been fixed for about 90 cents per car, plus $400,000 in tooling costs.
“Companies have a responsibility to alert consumers of defects and to fix the problems it is aware of,” according to Peter J. Mougey, head of Levin, Papantonio’s Business & Securities Litigation Section. “To have a prior knowledge of dangerous problems and not tell consumers in order to protect the bottom line is criminal.”
The recall over the ignition switches involves Chevrolet Cobalts and HHRs, Saturn Ions and Skys, and Pontiac G5s and Solstices that were produced between 2003 and 2011.
David Friedman, acting chief of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), told Congress in April that regulators could have acted earlier if GM had been more open regarding the switch. “GM had critical information that would have helped identify this defect,” he said. “Had this information been available, it’s likely NHTSA would have changed its approach to the issue.”
In May, NHTSA fined GM $35 million, the maximum amount allowed under the law, for their delay in recalling vehicles with the faulty switch. In the consent decree, GM “admitted that it broke federal law by not recalling the vehicles in a timely fashion” reported Vox.
GM’s bailout from the federal government could also become a factor. “As part of the government restructuring, GM technically isn’t liable for injuries that happened before it went bankrupt in the summer of 2009. That potentially includes some of the victims of the ignition-switch defect,” according to Vox.
Mougey believes the new GM, the post-bankruptcy GM, will be held liable for the hidden defects as company executives were aware of the problems and did not tell consumers.
“Our bankruptcy laws are not designed to shield debtors from injuries caused by problems their companies knew about and failed to fix,” said Mougey.