Founded in 1908, General Motors Company LLC, commonly known as GM, is a multinational Detroit-based corporation that designs, manufactures, markets, and distributes vehicles and vehicle parts under various brands. The current GM replaces the original General Motors Corporation, which declared bankruptcy in 2009.
Beginning with 2001, models under several GM brands – including Impala, Cobalt, and others – were fitted with a specific GM ignition switch that was found to have a flaw, causing the car to suddenly shut off while in gear.
Common Uses of GM Ignition Switches
An ignition switch is part of the control system of a vehicle. Traditionally the vehicle key is placed in the ignition switch and turned in order to start the main electrical systems, including the radio, power windows, air conditioner or heating, etc. The ignition switch is typically combined with the starter switch, which activates the vehicle’s motor.
GM Ignition Switches Safety Concerns
GM is responsible for installing faulty ignition switches in many vehicle models. The faulty ignition switches could accidentally turn off the engine while the vehicle is in use, causing a loss of power steering, disabling brakes, and preventing airbags from inflating. In some models, the key could be removed from the ignition switch even when the switch is not in the “off” position. This could cause the vehicle to roll away in both automatic and manual transmissions.
The switch detent plunger is a part of the ignition switch designed to provide sufficient mechanical resistance to prevent accidental rotation. In the faulty ignition switches, the switch detent plunger was not sufficient, allowing accidental rotation that would turn off the engine. Based on internal documents that have since been discovered, executives and engineers at GM knew about the defect in these ignition switch detent plungers, but failed to inform both the government and consumers.
GM’s subsidiary automaker brands that used faulty GM ignition switches in some models include Buick, Cadillac, Chevrolet, Oldsmobile, Pontiac, and Saturn. Some of these brands have since been discontinued (not necessarily due to the ignition switch problems), as GM had previously filed for bankruptcy in 2009 due to the financial crisis.
Death and Serious Injury Associated with Faulty Ignition Switches
Drivers and passengers have died and been seriously injured in cars with GM’s faulty ignition switches. When the ignition switch accidentally turns off, the car loses many functions that can lead to a collision or off-road accident. In cases where the key is removed from the ignition switch when the switch is not in the “off” position, the vehicle has potential to roll away, increasing risk of a crash.
The faulty GM ignition has been linked to at least 124 deaths. Additional deaths may be linked as more affected models are identified.
GM Ignition Switch Recalls
Due to the problems associated with the faulty ignition switches, in February 2014 GM initiated a recall of approximately 800,000 vehicles across several of its auto brands. As more information came out about the issue, and more models were identified as containing the problematic ignition switch, GM continued to expand its recall to additional brands, models, model years. Ultimately, more than 30 million cars have been recalled to date.
Regulation of GM Ignition Switches
Several agencies oversee GM ignition switch safety in different capacities.
National Highway Traffic Safety Administration
The NHTSA is the regulatory branch of the Department of Transportation that oversees automakers, and the laws, safety, and regulations related to the commercial vehicle industry.
In 2014, GM began recalling several car makes and models with faulty ignition switches. They continued to increase the scale of the recall. In May of the same year, NHTSA imposed a $35 million fine on GM for its initial recall. GM acknowledged the ignition switches were known to have been faulty for at least a decade, but hadn’t recalled the cars prior to 2014.
The $35 million fine is the highest that NHTSA is able to levy. The agency and DOT are currently petitioning Congress to increase that maximum fine to $300 million.
NHTSA continues to alert the public to use only the ignition key; nothing else should share the key ring. The agency strongly encourages getting the piece replaced as soon as consumers receive notification from GM.
Department of Justice
The DOJ is responsible for enforcing law and administering justice, and it gets involved in a variety of cases as necessary. The DOJ started a criminal investigation into GM after the delayed recalls started in 2014. In September 2015 GM forfeited $900 million to the DOJ as part of a deal that forced the company to accept responsibility for previous knowledge of the faulty ignition switches and to refrain from criminal conduct in the future, promising to cooperate fully with the government.
GM Ignition Switches Lawsuits
Many lawsuits have been filed against GM regarding the deaths and serious injuries of drivers and passengers. These cases have been transferred to the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York as part of an ongoing multidistrict litigation (MDL) docket. Specifically, MDL 2543 is overseen by Judge Jesse M. Furman, with the idea being that having all plaintiffs with similar complaints see a single judge in the same district will ultimately be more efficient for all parties involved.
The most recent revised version of the consolidated complaint for MDL 2543 levies a number of charges against GM for its role in the manufacture and distribution of faulty ignition switches. These include:
- False promotion and marketing by GM its vehicles as safe, reliable, and high-quality
- Inaccurate claims in marketing materials about GM’s prioritization of safety and quality in the company’s manufacturing processes
- The actual physical defects of the ignition switches, of which GM has acknowledged being aware and hiding from both consumers and the government
Related claims are also made against the company, in particular related to injuries and deaths caused by the defects.