A contrite General Motors CEO Mary Barra apologized Tuesday for deaths caused by a major ignition defect in some of its most popular cars, but she had few answers for irate lawmakers who demanded to know why the company waited until this year to issue a recall when the problems had been going on for a decade.
Ms. Barra, who took over as the CEO in January, said she couldn’t yet answer questions about when the company knew about the defect, why the company accepted ignition parts that didn’t meet its standards and whether General Motors plans to compensate victims, despite not being legally responsible due to its 2008-2009 bankruptcy filling.
“I can’t answer specific questions at this point in time, that’s why we’re doing a complete investigation,” she said, dodging questions from members of the House Energy and Commerce Committee for more than two hours.
Since February, GM has recalled 2.6 million cars — mostly Chevrolet Cobalts and Saturn Ions — over the faulty switch.
The answers from the head of the nation’s biggest auto company didn’t sit well with lawmakers who said she should have provided specifics in her first appearance on Capitol Hill since the scandal broke.
“With all respect, what you just answered is gobbledegook,” Rep. Joe Barton, Texas Republican, told her at one point.
The ignition defect causes some cars to unexpectedly turn off if a heavy keychain is hanging from the ignition, a driver’s knee bumps the key, or the car hits a pothole or bump.
The company said earlier this year that at least 13 people died in frontal accidents because of the defect.
Lawmakers said the defect could have been fixed at a cost of about $2 per car.
Relatives and friends of those who had died sat in the last row of the hearing room Tuesday, posting photos of several of those killed on a ledge along the back wall, including one of a Marine in uniform.
Family members told reporters prior to the hearing that their children’s deaths should not be the cost of doing business with a company unwilling to issue a recall because of a known defect.
Ken Rimer, who lost his 18-year-old stepdaughter Natasha Weigel on Oct. 24, 2006, when she was driving with two friends in a 2005 Chevy Cobalt, said her death was “needless.”
“What was to be a simple shopping trip turned into a death trap as their vehicle, without any warning, lost power,” he said. “My wife Jane lost everything. Natasha was her only child. There’ll be no boyfriend troubles, no wedding date jitters, no children for Natasha or grandchildren for Jane.”
Drivers who survived incidents described losing power steering, the ability to brake and any protection from airbags at highway speeds. One said driving the car was like “playing Russian roulette with my life.”
Legally, General Motors may not be liable for any accidents that occurred prior to July 2009, when it emerged from bankruptcy as a new company, Rep. Jan Schakowsky, Illinois Democrat, said. GM and rival Chrysler received billions of dollars in taxpayer aid in a bailout begun under President George W. Bush and continued under President Obama.
The recall revelations were a major setback for GM, which had touted its strong recovery from a near-death experience in recent years. The company’s stock was lost a modest 8 cents, or 0.23 percent, to close at $34.34 on the New York Stock Exchange Tuesday. Ms. Barra is slated to be on Capitol Hill again Wednesday testifying before a House hearing.
Sen. Richard Blumenthal, Connecticut Democrat, called on General Motors to establish a fund to compensate families of victims and issue a warning that affected cars should not be driven until repaired. The company, he added, should throw its support behind a bill in the Senate that will increase disclosure mandates to make sure defects are detected and shared with the public sooner.
Ms. Barra declined to say what, if anything, the company planned to do to compensate victims or their families. She said the company had hired noted compensation expert Kenneth Feinberg — who handled the fund for the victims of 9/11, the Boston Marathon bombing and the BP oil spill — to explore ways to compensate victims of accidents in the GM cars, but did not commit the company to paying the families of victims.
She said it would take 30 to 60 days to make any decisions.
When asked to provide the full report of the investigation to Congress, however, she declined repeatedly, saying that “we will share what’s appropriate.”
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