Merriam-Webster.com defines compassion as, “a feeling of wanting to help someone who is sick, hungry, in trouble, etc.” A Google search teaming the name Mary Barra with “compassionate” pulls up a host of articles fawning over General Motors’ new CEO’s handling of the company’s botched recalls which seem to have cost at least 12 American lives. Contrary to the media’s belief that GM is a compassionate entity working in the best interests of accident victims, the facts show that the response to defects in GM vehicles and subsequent recall delays has been anything BUT compassionate.
The NY Times continued its excellent investigative reporting on the GM recall delay story with an article describing how GM reacted to victims who tried to go up against the corporate giant after lives were lost in accidents involving defective GM vehicles. From that piece:
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 a trove of internal documents and studies mounted, G.M. 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, G.M. 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, G.M. 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.
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 G.M. pushed back against families in at least two of the accidents, and reached settlements that required the victims to keep the discussions confidential.
The timing of the revelation (May 15, 2009, just two weeks prior to GM filing for bankruptcy) that a “potentially fatal defect existed in hundreds of thousands” of GM vehicles is of particular importance as the company is currently being accused of hiding the liabilities arising from the defects from the bankruptcy court in June of 2009. Is it really believable that the company honestly overlooked a “potentially fatal defect” and the accompanying lawsuits when they were required to disclose them to the bankruptcy court? Also, how could President Obama’s Auto Task Force, which orchestrated the bankruptcy process, not know of the issues when they were so deeply entrenched at GM?
Apologists for GM might argue that the deplorable treatment of accident victims were the actions of “Old GM.” Unfortunately, the same people remained in power at “New GM,” with the exception of some who were replaced by Obama-appointed executives. Let’s be honest here, if Old GM knew about the defects, New GM had to know as well. Also, meetings were held in July of 2011 regarding the known defects at a time when Mary Barra was head of product development; still, no recall. And New GM’s recent responses have not been any better than the old.
Let’s flash back to GM’s response when evidence surfaced that the company delayed recalls for vehicles that had known defects. GM’s first reaction was to only recall some of the defective vehicles (leaving dangerous vehicles on the roads until media pressure led to a full recall) while blaming victims for the accidents. Here’s GM’s statement as reported by a NY Times piece dated February 13, 2014:
In a separate news release, G.M. said it knew of six deaths in five crashes in which the front air bags did not deploy.
“All of these crashes occurred off-road and at high speeds, where the probability of serious or fatal injuries was high regardless of air bag deployment. In addition, failure to wear seat belts and alcohol use were factors in some of these cases,” the statement said.
Alcohol was involved in two of the five crashes, resulting in three of the deaths, Alan Adler, a spokesman for G.M., said in a telephone interview. The statement said G.M. was also aware of 17 other crashes “involving some type of frontal impact and nonfatal injuries where the air bags did not deploy.”
Wow, that’s a lot of lies from GM packed in to just a few short paragraphs! GM knew of more than “six deaths in five crashes.” Not all crashes occurred “off-road and at high speeds.” There were a heck of a lot more than “17 other crashes” where air bags did not deploy. The despicable implication that accident victims were speeding and intoxicated really shows what a lack of “compassion” there really is at the company.
Reuter’s also published a piece which exposed how poorly New GM and the National Highway and Transportation Administration (NHTSA) handled the problem. One Saturn Ion owner described her experiences:
Saturn Ion owner Nancy Bowman of Washington, Michigan, said she is outraged that GM allowed her to drive a “death trap.” She said her car had so many ignition problems she was afraid to resell it to an innocent buyer.
She bought the 2004 model car new and still drives it after extensive repairs and multiple run-ins with a Saturn dealer she called dismissive.
“Five times the car died right out from under me after hitting a bump in the road,” she wrote in a 2013 posting on a complaint website, arfc.org, that says it sends information to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA).
“Every time I brought it in they said it was an isolated incident. Couldn’t find the problem, so they acted like I was an idiot.”
The above-mentioned Reuter’s piece also addresses GM’s idea of being compassionate. The company pulled a sleazy sales ploy by offering a $500 discount on a new GM vehicle for anyone owning one of the defective, recalled cars. An attorney considering lawsuits against GM described the offer as “really ridiculous.” I personally prefer, “sleazy sales ploy.”
So, as President Obama likes to say, “Let’s be clear.” General Motors is trying to appear “compassionate” only after having been busted for lying about defects in their vehicles which they have known about for years. They are now trying to limit the fallout resulting both from legal liability and a public backlash standpoint. Mary Barra’s offer to investigate what went wrong is neither compassionate nor sufficient. Our government’s oversight entities must expose the wrongdoing at GM, even if it means outing cronies who are still at GM and bringing into question if Obama’s Auto Task Force Team knew of the deadly defects which cost American lives.
Mark Modica is an NLPC Associate Fellow.