Ten times more deaths linked to faulty switch than GM first reported

August 24, 2015, 9:38 PM UTC
Kenneth Feinberg Announces GM Ignition Compensation Program
Kenneth "Ken" Feinberg, managing partner and founder of Feinberg Rozen LLP, speaks during a news conference at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C., U.S., on Monday, June 30, 2014. Feinberg, hired by General Motors Co. (GM) Chief Executive Officer Mary Barra to administer the company's compensation fund, said GM will spend whatever it takes to compensate victims of accidents in Cobalts, Ions and other cars with faulty ignition switches. Photographer: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg via Getty Images
Photograph by Andrew Harrer — Bloomberg/Getty Images

High-profile attorney Kenneth Feinberg, who has handled compensation issues related to the 9/11 terrorist attacks and the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, has linked 124 deaths and 275 injuries to General Motors’ recalled ignition switches.

General Motors (GM) originally said it knew of only 13 deaths related to the switches—meaning Feinberg’s office determined the actual death numbers were nearly ten times higher.

Feinberg, who most recently advised on compensation issues related to the Boston Marathon bombing, was hired by GM as a consultant to advise the automaker how to respond to families of accident victims whose vehicles are being recalled for possible ignition switch defects.

Feinberg’s office reviewed claims of injury and death linked to the faulty switches, which led to a recall of about 2.6 million cars worldwide. Feinberg’s office rejected 91% of the 4,343 claims filed with the GM Ignition Compensation Claims Resolution Facility. Of the 399 eligible claims, 124 were deaths and 17 were victims with physical injuries that resulted in quadriplegia, paraplegia, double amputation, permanent brain damage, or pervasive burns. The remaining 258 eligible claims were for people with physical injuries that resulted in hospitalization or outpatient treatment within 48 hours of the accident.

GM has set aside $625 million to pay victims.

In February 2014, General Motors issued a recall of the 2003-2007 model year Chevrolet Cobalt, Chevrolet HHR, Saturn Ion, Saturn Sky, Pontiac G5, and Pontiac Solstice. The recall was later expanded to include all model years.

Under certain conditions, the ignition switch can move out of the “run” or “on” position, causing a partial loss of electrical power and the engine turning off, according to GM. The risk increases if a driver’s key ring is carrying added weight or if the vehicle encounters rough road conditions. When the ignition switch is not in the run position, the airbags may not deploy if the vehicle is involved in a crash.

Problems with the ignition switch were identified within the company as early as 2001 in a pre-production report for the model year 2003 Saturn Ion, according to documents provided last year to the House Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations. The report said a design change resolved the problem. However, issues persisted, and in 2004 GM opened an engineering inquiry to look into a complaint that a 2005 Chevrolet Cobalt vehicle could be turned off while driving. Ultimately, no action was taken. A year later, the driver of a 2005 Chevrolet Cobalt was killed in a crash that would later be linked to the faulty ignition switch. A National Highway Traffic Safety Administration investigation determined the frontal airbag system didn’t deploy and that the vehicle power mode status was in “accessory,” not “run.”

Last June, GM CEO Mary Barra fired 15 employees deemed responsible for not tackling the problem vigorously enough.

While having so many deaths linked to the defective switch is hardly a positive for GM, this final report Feinberg at least marks the beginning of the end of this deadly saga.

However, the company’s troubles are not over quite yet. The company still faces the wrath of the U.S. Justice Department, which is nearing a decision on whether to criminally charge GM over its failure to disclose the problem and recall affected cars after it staff first discovered issues with the switch in 2001.

GM has also been plagued by other recalls. The company kicked off 2015 with three safety recalls involving 83,572 sport-utility vehicles and pickup trucks. Just last month, the automaker issued a recall on 780,000 SUV models due to liftgate malfunctions.