General Motors is facing public criticism and multiple investigations over its handling of a recall of millions of vehicles due to a faulty ignition switch. The company has acknowledged that at least 13 deaths are attributable to the defect. Much of the investigation concerns how early GM knew about the defect, and whether it took action to cover it up.
The House Oversight and Investigations Subcommittee recently released over 200,000 documents related to the recall investigation, and one document seems to provide evidence that GM attempted to hide the problem. A 2006 memo from Delphi Corporation, a parts supplier that was formerly part of GM, indicates that a GM employee authorized a change in part of the ignition switch without taking the usual step of creating a new part number. That decision led to years of delay in finding the defect.
Other documents show that another GM manager rejected a proposed repair to the ignition switches because it would cost $37.7 million. Instead, GM authorized a fix that cost $14.2 million. The cost of GM’s recall is now estimated to be $1.3 billion.
Although it appears that GM knew about the faulty ignition switches early on, the defect and the secret part change were first documented by someone outside the company as part of a lawsuit against GM.
Brooke Melton died in a 2010 accident in Georgia, after the engine in her Chevrolet Cobalt shut off abruptly. Her family sued GM, and their attorney hired Mark Hood, a Florida engineer, to investigate what had caused the engine problem. As part of Hood’s analysis of the Cobalt’s ignition switch, he bought a replacement from a GM dealer. He found that while the replacement had the same part number as the older switch, it required more force to turn on and off.
Hood purchased more Cobalt ignition switches from junkyards, thoroughly documenting the change. By the time the Meltons’ attorney deposed engineers from GM in April 2013, there was no denying the fact that a new part had been quietly substituted. In the automaker’s federal filings in February for the recall, the company acknowledged that a GM engineer had authorized the secret substitution, and that Hood was the first person outside the company to discover the change.
Although evidence points to widespread knowledge of the defect within the company by 2009 at the latest, letters and legal documents show that GM continued to deny the defect existed in communications with the families of accident victims, according to an analysis by the New York Times.