General Motors has found itself entangled in a product liability lawsuit that raises new questions about the reforms the company said it instituted after the ignition-switch scandal that contributed to the deaths of 124 motorists and cost GM millions.
The suit, Buchanan vs General Motors, is on hold pending a decision by a Georgia Appellate Court on whether GM CEO Mary Barra must give a deposition in the case, which dates to 2016 and involves the 2014 death of 42-year-old woman on a hilly road.
The fight about whether the Barra ought to testify under oath has drawn the interest of outside groups such as the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the American Tort Reform Association. The chamber argues that busy CEOs should not be forced to testify on matters of which they have no direct knowledge. ATRA argues in its amicus brief that CEOs should not be given special privileges.
GM argues that Barra, who won plaudits for her adroit handling in 2014 of the ignition-switch controversies that prompted the dismissal of more than a dozen GM engineers for failing to catch the problem, should not be forced to testify.
Details of the lawsuit
The lawsuit at the heart of the dispute revolves around what the plaintiff’s lawyer, Lance Cooper of Marietta, Georgia, describes as a faulty sensor that turned off the stability control in the 2007 Chevrolet Trailblazer in which the dead woman was driving.
In court filings, GM’s defense has been that Glenda Marie Buchanan, the woman who died, was a distracted driver, who had been on her phone while driving on a difficult stretch of road north of Atlanta.
However, the plaintiffs in the lawsuit, Buchanan’s husband, claims GM knew or should have known about the defective sensor in the Chevrolet Trailblazer.
According to Reuters, which conducted an extensive reviewed the records in the case, including many still under a protective seal, an internal review at GM in 2018 found that more than 73,000 warranty claims or more than 10% of the total build for that type of vehicle — an unusually high rate in an industry where a failure rate of more than 1% draws scrutiny.
Handling warranty claims data
Carmakers receive hundreds of warranty claims from dealers each week and employ systems for analyzing that data. The systems are growing increasingly sophisticated and can pinpoint specific problems on the factory floor.
However, the large number of complaints about the steering angle sensor, which came from a GM supplier that is now part of the ZF Group, most likely TRW, did raise concerns, according to Reuters, but GM was unable to determine whether the sensor was defective at the time of the crash. The company has not issued any kind of recall.
Contrary to the arguments made by the Chamber of Commerce, the context and scope of the problem and the review suggest concern among GM’s more senior executives. However, GM officials also say privately the auto company has no indication, except for the solitary case in Georgia, of any accidents attributable to the sensor.
Reuters also said the National Highway Traffic Administration considered opening an investigation into the issue but after a review declined order further query or recall.
Barra insists that GM’s old culture has been systematically rooted out as the company brings in new employees and new executives to focus on electric and autonomous vehicles.
In addition, GM’s internal procedures for reviewing issues that could jeopardize customers or the public have been completely overhauled since 2014.
“GM is committed to safety in everything we do. GM has comprehensively rebuilt and strengthened its product safety processes. Those processes were fully employed to investigate this case involving a vehicle built more than a decade ago,” noted a GM spokesman in an email.
Georgia favorable for lawsuits
Georgia attorney Cooper has tangled with GM previously. He handled a key lawsuit in the ignition-switch controversy that involved the death in 2010 of a young woman driving a defective Chevrolet Cobalt. In fact, Cooper wrote a book about the case, “Cobalt Coverup.”
Georgia has been a favorable jurisdiction for attacking automakers.
In 2015, a jury in Decatur, Georgia awarded $150 million to a plaintiff in a case involving a Jeep Cherokee with a gasoline tank that exploded killing a young man. Attorneys for the plaintiff argued Chrysler should have known the gas tank was vulnerable. The suit also called for Fiat Chrysler CEO Sergio Marchionne to testify in open court.
The verdict came two years after FCA settled had agreed to a “scaled-down” recall of Jeeps with rear-mounted gas tanks.
In it is brief in the GM case, however, the Chamber of Commerce noted that the state Georgia has a reputation for having a legal system that is tilted against corporations.