Recalls, potential fines, and now a criminal investigation: These are all the tribulations General Motors now faces thanks to a faulty ignition switch cited in 12 fatal crashes. But is it really all just because drivers had too much stuff on their key rings? Court documents reviewed by Jalopnik show a more complex issue.
Court documents indicate GM knew for more than a decade about a faulty ignition switch in the Chevrolet Cobalt, Pontiac G5, Saturn Ion and other cars that could turn off under certain circumstances, also disabling the airbags. The part has been a factor in at least 12 (formerly 13 until GM revised the total) fatal crashes, triggering a recall of 1.4 million cars.
Since then both the automaker and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration have urged Cobalt owners to lighten the loads on their key rings, as the extra weight can switch the ignition off inadvertently.
The problem is more than just heavy key rings. Parsing through copies of a deposition from a 2013 lawsuit obtained by Jalopnik reveals GM got complaints of ignitions that could be switched off by bumping the steering column or the keys with their hands or knees.
The deposition comes from the lawsuit filed by the family of 29-year-old pediatric nurse Brooke Melton, who died in a Cobalt crash in 2010.
According to a depositions of Victor Hakim, a senior manager and consultant at GM, customers who complained of cars shutting off were advised by dealers that the ignition cylinder is a "low-effort cylinder" that could not be fixed with existing parts.
The lawsuit reviewed 90 cases in which customers complained of the car shutting off. Hakim testified that the ignition cylinder required very little torque to turn, which might explain why so many vehicles would shut down and stall so easily.
The full text of the deposition is pasted below so you can go through the lawyers' deposition of Hakim in which numerous customer complaints about shutdowns are entered into evidence.
The Detroit News reviewed the same depositions and highlighted the problems experienced by drivers other than the dozen known fatal crashes:
In several cases, customers complained to GM that engine stalling or losing power led to accidents. In two cases, customers — one as early as February 2006 — said they were in accidents in which air bags did not deploy. In one case, GM bought back a 2006 Cobalt from a GM employee who said the car would "die out;" he threatened to file a lemon-law case.
Other employees identified problems, according to depositions. Some vehicle evaluation program members driving Saturn Ions noted their knee or something hit the key and turned the ignition switch off. One employee, Gerald Young, told GM in January 2004 that the ignition switch was too low and the keys hit his knee. "This is a basic design flaw and should be corrected if we want repeat sales," he said.
The takeaway from all this? It's not just about heavy key rings, although if your car is affected then you should probably lighten your load as soon as possible. Signs point to a faulty design that led to airbags getting shut off, and that became a factor in a dozen deaths.
Has your car been affected by this problem? If so, tell us.