Pharos-Tribune

Columns

March 31, 2014

LYONS: A look behind the American oligarchy

(Continued)

By 2009, however, engineers concluded that the faulty switch played a causal role in several fatal accidents — although some drivers had been drinking, texting or otherwise distracted — and that while Cobalts were going out of production, hundreds of thousands were still rolling.

Nevertheless, GM did nothing, while company lawyers fought off or stonewalled lawsuits alleging product liability.

Twenty-three fatal accidents and 26 deaths later, GM finally issued a recall notice for 1.6 million vehicles last month. The company’s recently appointed CEO Mary Barra has been doing public penance and vowing to do everything possible to restore consumer confidence in the GM brand, which will definitely take some doing.

Published accounts of how separate divisions of GM’s giant bureaucracy communicate badly or not at all read like episodes of “Catch-22.” Customer complaints and warranty claims aren’t shared with safety engineers, who in turn have no communication with company lawyers. Meanwhile, nobody was talking to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, the federal agency that belatedly promises a criminal investigation.

Meanwhile, the auto industry press contrasts GM’s “unusually proactive and candid approach” to Toyota’s, which last week admitted criminal guilt and paid a $1.2 billion fine — the largest against an automaker in U.S. history.

Announcing a settlement, Attorney General Eric Holder said the company had “intentionally concealed information and misled the public” and shamefully showed “blatant disregard for systems and laws.”

At issue were faulty accelerator pedals that caused the cars to rocket out of control. Toyota has recalled as many as 10 million vehicles worldwide, and has been forced to pay tens of millions in fines and lawsuit settlements. Hundreds more civil lawsuits await litigation. What the settlement makes clear is that Toyota’s top management deliberately lied to government investigators both about the mechanical issue and their knowledge of it.

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