— A Texas lawsuit filed over a defective General Motors ignition switch led to sworn testimony from CEO Mary Barra that in 2004 and 2005, engineers "misdiagnosed" the deadly switches as a customer satisfaction problem, not a safety problem.
GM had a list of words not to be used by employees around the office, one of those words being "safety." By claiming the ignition switch problems were only customer satisfaction problems, the automaker didn't have to order a recall or notify federal regulators about the deadly safety defects.
GM has recalled millions of vehicles after waiting 10 years to admit the switches were defective. Those switches easily moved out of the "run" position to the "accessory" or "off" position with a simple bump of the knee to the key. Investigators determined a heavy key ring was enough to make the switches turn off, causing a loss of engine power, power steering, power brakes and airbags.
The Texas lawsuit was filed by the family of Zachary Stevens, who was 19 when the 2007 Saturn Sky he was driving crossed the center line and hit a 1997 Nissan Frontier, killing the driver, 40-year-old Mariano Elias Landaverde.
Witnesses said Stevens was traveling at a high rate of speed and started passing other vehicles on the shoulder of the road. Stevens hit a guardrail and slid sideways across the highway, slamming into Landaverde's truck and sending it into a ditch. Landaverde was pronounced dead at the scene.
The 2011 crash left Stevens with no memory of the incident, but that didn't matter as prosecutors charged him with manslaughter.
After hiring a private investigator and enduring months of court proceedings, the investigator determined the ignition switch caused the crash. The case was eventually dismissed because the crash involved a GM car that was recalled. The family filed suit after allegedly spending $70,000 to prove his innocence and GM offered Stevens $70,000 as part of GM's ignition switch compensation fund.
Stevens rejected the offer and sued the automaker.
Barra, in video testimony used in the trial, admitted many mistakes were made that caused the ignition switch defect that ultimately had "tragic consequences."
Barra testified the defective switches can move out of the "run" position and cause accidents that can lead to fatalities because of airbags that fail to deploy. She also said GM engineers hid the defects from the public and even when management knew about the problems, the defects weren't reported to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.
Additionally, Barra admitted when engineers and others knew the switches were defective, the automaker continued to install them in new cars.
However, even with the testimony from Barra, GM says the Texas crash occurred because Stevens was speeding and driving recklessly, and the ignition switch had nothing to do with it. The automaker also says the key ring introduced as evidence in court is not the same one used in the ignition switch when the crash occurred.
Chevy Cobalt Ignition Switch Lawsuit
In a separate GM ignition switch case, a Texas judge dismissed a lawsuit filed by the driver of a 2007 Chevrolet Cobalt that lost control and hit a concrete barrier. The Cobalt was then hit by a truck, leaving the Cobalt driver, Gloria Alexander, blaming the GM ignition switch after the car was later recalled to replace the switch.
Alexander sued the automaker in 2013, but GM argued she had no experts testify the crash had anything to do with the ignition switch. The automaker also had a good argument concerning the airbags in the Cobalt when the evidence showed the airbags deployed normally in the crash.
Those airbags shouldn't have deployed if the ignition switch was turned off, and Judge Robert Schaffer agreed and dismissed the lawsuit in a one-page ruling.