GM Recalls Raise Deeper Issues of Corporate Responsibility and Regulatory Oversight

A disturbing article published this week in the New York Times outlines a series of failures by both corporate America and the federal government. Its focus is General Motors’ recent recall notices involving well over a million vehicles manufactured since the 2003 model year (click here for GM’s latest news release with full details of models and years effected). The vehicles have a defect in the air bag system that in some instances means the air bags will not deploy during a crash because the ignition switch has been cut off.

According to the Times, GM now acknowledges that at least 13 deaths can be tied to the defect. What is disturbing is the paper’s report that the automaker’s engineers were aware of the issue in 2004 – more than a year before the first of those 13 documented deaths. Equally bad is the record of federal regulators from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. According to the paper, “after two of the (Chevy) Cobalt crashes, the regulators took a close look at the cause, each time raising the possibility of a defect. They also met with GM about the issue. But despite the red flags, they never opened a broader investigation into whether the car was defective.”
As the paper goes on to report, a number of lawsuits related to the documented deaths have already made their way through the court system. Class action law was created precisely to enable ordinary Americans to defend their rights in cases of this sort of willful and negligent misconduct, especially when it results in wrongful deaths. The recall notices are still new and are still sinking in for many people (the initial recall was issued on February 19 and was later extended to hundreds of thousands of other vehicles) so it is also important to note that the full impact of the situation is not yet clear. It is clear that the court system will probably hear much more about these vehicles in the months and years to come.

As an Oregon product liability and wrongful death attorney I can only say that I find these revelations disturbing. We all understand that any private company has an obligation to its shareholders to make a profit, but that fiduciary responsibility does not eliminate the broader responsibility that companies and individuals have to our society at large. GM needs to be held accountable for these lapses now, and it deserves close scrutiny in the months and years to come to ensure that nothing like this ever happens again. We also know that regulators like the NHSTA play an essential role in our system of public safety, but when watchdog agencies fail to do their jobs the system fails everyone. Congress and our courts both need to take on the burden of ensuring that regulators do their jobs diligently and without favor to the industry they are charged with overseeing.

The New York Times: In General Motors Recalls, Inaction and a Trail of Fatal Crashes