FORTUNE — Last Thursday, Toyota Motor Corp.
announced a recall of nearly half a million cars around the world due to a possible defect, a noteworthy event mostly because – for a change – it wasn’t General Motors Co. recalling a vehicle.
Since January, GM
has recalled 13.8 million cars and trucks in the U.S. (15.8 million globally) in 30 separate incidents, an extraordinarily large number of vehicles and incidents for the No. 1 U.S. automaker or any automaker. The actions come in the wake of February’s recall of 2.6 million vehicles due to a defective ignition switch that GM said it has known about for years. The automaker now is under civil, criminal and internal scrutiny for the lapse.
GM’s ignition-switch recall, which coincided with the first weeks in office of newly-minted chief executive Mary Barra, has created a crisis of confidence for the automaker, as well as for her fledgling tenure. Accordingly, she and her legal team have ordered heightened scrutiny of safety and recall standards, leading to the spurt of product actions. The automaker appointed an additional 35 investigators to its safety team.
GM has confirmed that more recalls are likely. The Wall Street Journal, in an analysis published last week, noted that the most recalled of its vehicles is its mainstream Malibu family sedan.
MORE: The big glitch in our auto supply chain
For years, GM has been cautious, perhaps too cautious, about issuing recalls until its engineers understood the problem, were sure that it created a safety hazard (as opposed, say, to a piece of upholstery that frayed) and knew how to fix it. In the meantime, product liability and personal injury attorneys have advanced more expansive theories about how a seemingly trivial defect could create a hazard.
Many of GM’s legal liabilities connected to defects may have been erased by its 2009 bankruptcy, which prevents plaintiffs from seeking damages from “the new GM,” the successor to the corporation that went broke. But some legal theorists have opined that the new GM could be held liable for pre-2009 cars with bad ignition switches and for vehicles with other defects if plaintiffs can demonstrate that GM knew about them and withheld the knowledge during the bankruptcy proceedings.
In the meantime, the torrent of recalls doesn’t seem to be hurting sales of GM vehicles. Consumers shop for Chevrolets, Cadillacs, GMC trucks and Buicks – the GM name is less prominent in the marketplace than in the news.
Moreover, recalls simply have become a routine feature of the retail automobile business. It’s fairly common for the buyer of a new vehicle to receive one or more letters explaining that it should be brought back to the dealer for an adjustment or replacement of a part. About a quarter of all motorists receiving recall notices never respond to them, even though repairs and replaced parts cost them nothing.
As with the uproar over Ford Explorer rollovers nearly fifteen years ago and Toyota’s unintended acceleration events of five years ago, there’s no telling how long GM will be engulfed by its recalls and the legalities surrounding them. But the matter undoubtedly will pass, accompanied by the payment of large sums, the exit from GM of more engineers and managers – and perhaps more transparency in the process of perfecting less-than-perfect vehicles.