General Motors Recalls: 50 Years After First Protecting Drivers, Courts Need More ‘Sunshine’

Scartelli Olszewski P.C.

When we last wrote about the General Motors recall debacle, it already had reached historic proportions. Unbelievably, the full extent of the quality control issues affecting the safety of the company’s millions of customers had yet to come to light. At the end of June, the company recalled another eight million vehicles dating as far back as the 1997 model year. Most of the newly issued recalls are for defects that could cause the car’s ignition switch to slip into the off position, which is the same issue that killed 29-year-old Georgia nurse Brooke Melton in 2010. If not for the investigation begun by a trial attorney on behalf of Melton’s parents, which uncovered the switch defect and showed that General Motors had been aware of it since at least 2004, the company probably would still be hiding this problem from the public while millions of their unsafe vehicles cruised our roadways. That this degree of financially motivated disregard for consumer safety still is being uncovered in 2014 shows the vital role the civil justice system continues to play in holding manufacturers accountable for their products, even after decades of increased regulatory oversight. Fifty years ago, a Michigan man named David Larsen was involved in a head-on collision while driving his friend’s Chevy Corvair. Much of the unabsorbed force of the impact was transmitted directly into the steering column, a solid shaft that began less than three inches from the car’s front wheels and ended less than a foot from the driver’s face. The steering column was forced into the passenger compartment and impaled David Larsen’s head. Remarkably, Larsen lived. He sued General Motors over the unsafe design that turned the Corvair’s steering column into a projectile, only to hear General Motors claim in court that it had “no duty whatsoever” to design vehicles that would protect their occupants in a collision. In the company’s view, its cars were safe for their intended use, which was driving, not crashing. Thankfully for drivers everywhere, the court found what seems obvious now – the risk of crashes is part of driving, and companies that make vehicles must “exercise reasonable care” to account for crashes when designing those vehicles. It was a landmark decision that transformed automobile safety for consumers. Since 1964, the number of U.S. crash fatalities has dropped by almost 10,000 per year, even as the total number of miles travelled by people on our roads has nearly quadrupled. Part of that increase in safety is the result of better roads and safer driving practices, but much of it is due to the fact that when crashes occur, as they inevitably do, people are less likely to be killed by shortcomings in the design of the vehicles involved. Airbags, three-point seat belts, crush-resistant car roofs, and gas tanks located away from impact areas are just some of the life-saving design features that once were dismissed by auto manufacturers as too expensive, but are now essentially universal in vehicles sold in the United States. The primary impetus for these design improvements has been the financial penalties imposed by the civil justice system on behalf of people whose lives were destroyed when the vehicles they purchased failed precisely at the moment their owners needed them most. Despite this, General Motors and the rest of the auto industry continue to vigorously oppose legislative measures that would make it easier for the public to uncover potential safety risks in their products. As General Motors did for almost 10 years before its recent rash of recalls, vehicle manufacturers routinely conceal information about internally known safety problems, issue misleading statements to the public when faced with inquiries, and use their financial and legal resources to threaten and intimidate customers who claim that their vehicles contributed to injuries or deaths. Scartelli Olszewski joins the American Association for Justice in urging you to tell Congress to reinforce the civil justice system’s ability to hold the automobile industry and other manufacturers accountable for their products. Contact your U.S. senator or congressperson and tell them to support the Sunshine in Litigation Act (S. 2364 / H.R. 4361). The Sunshine in Litigation Act would make sure federal courts consider public health and safety matters before sealing court records, approving secret settlements, or taking other steps that could allow a product manufacturer to hide information that places consumers at risk for injury, illness, or death. If that sounds simple and straightforward, that’s because it is. Not surprisingly, the industry opposes it in its current form. In the words of GM senior vice president Bob Ferguson, the company wants the proposed law to give it “sufficient protections … to protect privacy, proprietary information and trade secrets”. At least 13 people died before we all discovered what GM considered “sufficient” in those areas. It’s time to let Congress know what’s sufficient for the rest of us.