Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Deadly Malfeasance and a Dodged Bullet

Sometimes it hits a little too close to home.

The latest act of deadly corporate malfeasance is brought to us by General Motors. The Detroit giant recently issued a recall of 1.6 million vehicles. The models, which were manufactured between 2003 and 2007, include the Chevrolet Cobalt and HHR, Pontiac G-5s, Solstices, and in Canada, Pursuits. Then finally, Saturn Ions and Skys. It seems the ignition system in these cars are a little quirky and sometimes, out of the blue, the key will flip from the "on" position to "accessory." This causes the engine to die. When it does you lose your power steering, power brakes, and most importantly, it shuts down the air bag system--so if you run into something hard, like another car, or a tree, it won't deploy. By GM's own admission at least 12 people have died in accidents directly related to the engineering flaw. However, the number could be higher.

Well, these things happen. After all, no one is perfect. The real crime is, for at least 12 families, their nightmares were preventable. Now there is hard evidence which shows GM has been aware of the defect since 2004 and possibly as long ago as 2001. Despite the knowledge they did very little to correct the problem.

Reports are that in 2005 a partial fix was made available, but no recall was issued. Instead the corporation told it's dealerships if anyone came in with a problem they were to use the new part to fix it. The piece cost about $1. That is right, a single George Washington.

To illustrate the GM mindset at the time, the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration began receiving reports of deaths related to the flawed key system in 2007. According to the corporation itself, the NHTSA didn't force them to issue a recall, so they saw no reason to do it on their own.

During the same period GM's legal department was doing everything in it's considerable power to fight off law suits filed by the families of victims. Today's New York Times ran a grim list of people who lost their lives when the keys in their vehicles switched to the accessory position. The paper also details the actions taken by the corporation to avoid responsibility for the faulty engineering. Included were threats of counter suits and promises of complaints to bar associations about the lawyers representing the families.

But--now that the gruesome skeleton is out of the closet and GM has admitted to their cruel mendacity, as an old pal of mine used to say, "Sue the bastards."  You bet, get their asses in front 12 men and women who could have owned one of those cars themselves and wait for the cash to roll in. Well, it isn't that easy. In fact, for many of the families, it could be impossible.

On July 10th, 2009 General Motors declared bankruptcy. In that instant, legally, it became a new company. The pre July 10th GM was suddenly defunct, gone; it no longer existed. That means, if your kid, wife, or husband died before July 10th, 2009 in a faulty GM product, you can't sue now, because--hey--the new GM has nothing to do with the old General Motors.

The Times cited the case of Alan Ray Floyd. Mr. Floyd was killed after he lost control of his vehicle when it shut down on a highway. The tragedy occurred on July, 3rd, 2009, a week before the bankruptcy went into effect. The GM reaction to the family's suit was to claim it was "frivolous" because the new corporation wasn't liable for the old one. The family attorney was told if he pursued the matter the company would go after the plaintiffs for any legal expenses incurred by the company during the proceedings. Floyd's family decided the risk was too high and backed down.

Mary Barra, the current CEO of General Motors, is apologizing profusely to everyone and has promised to, "change the process for handling such situations." Yes, that is all fine and good, but note she didn't say they were going to pay any money to people impacted by the incompetent designing and the ensuing cold blooded cover up.

According to a couple of sources, the size of the recall is so vast it will probably be early fall before all the vehicles are refitted. MSN reports GM has promised loaners which can be used until the tainted cars are repaired. The same story also says many of the dealerships around the country refuse to participate in the deal.

Meanwhile, sitting in my desk drawer is a letter from GM telling me about the recall of my 2006 Chevy Cobalt. It informs me replacement parts won't be available until sometime in April and I'll be receiving a second letter telling me when to call the dealership for an appointment.

Now I know what happened that early Saturday morning several months ago when I made a left turn onto May Avenue here in Oklahoma City. In the middle of it my car's engine died suddenly for no apparent reason. Luckily, no one was barreling down on me from either ahead or behind and as I coasted toward the opposite curb, I was able to shift into neutral and restart it.

It appears I dodged a bullet. I just wish I had known someone was shooting at me.

Happy motoring, America.


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