GM ignition death toll hits 21

David Shepardson
Detroit News Washington Bureau

The independent compensation fund overseeing those hurt or killed as a result of defective ignition switches in General Motors Co. cars said Monday it has approved 21 death claims.

Lawyer Ken Feinberg’s office said in a statement Monday that the compensation fund also has approved compensation for four claims for serious injuries and 12 claims for less serious injuries. That’s up from the 19 deaths and 12 other claims it had approved as of Sept. 12.

The fund through Friday had received 675 total claims for deaths and injuries, including 143 requests for death compensation, up from 131 the previous week.

The breakdown now includes 65 claims for serious injuries, up from 58 a week ago. The biggest jump came among requests for claims from less serious injuries, with 467 claims compared to 262 a week ago.

Camile Biros, the deputy compensation fund manager, said the fund hopes to make its first compensation offers by the end of this week. The fund will pay at least $1 million for each death claim, along with $300,000 payments to surviving spouses and children for pain and suffering. In addition, it will calculate the economic value of the life lost. The fund has no cap on overall payments.

The fund — which started receiving claims on Aug. 1 and will accept them through Dec. 31 — plans to announce weekly updates on the number of approved claims. It has a team of about two dozen economists and administrative officials reviewing claims and plans to disapprove some, including those for cars that are not part of the program. But it hasn’t said yet how many have been deemed ineligible.

Many were initially deemed incomplete, but the fund has been working with victims and their lawyers to complete their requests.

The claims stem from GM’s delayed recall of 2.6 million Chevrolet Cobalts, Saturn Ions and other cars with faulty ignition switches that can accidentally turn off the engine and disable power steering, power brakes and air bags. Some at the automaker knew of problems for more than a decade before the cars were recalled. In May, GM paid a record-setting $35 million fine to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and agreed to up to three years of intense oversight by the auto safety agency.

The Justice Department — aided by a grand jury, the FBI, Securities and Exchange Commission, at least 45 state attorneys general and Canadian safety regulators also are investigating. GM CEO Mary Barra fired 15 and disciplined five in the wake of the crisis. GM has now recalled a record 29 million vehicles in at least 67 separate campaigns this year.

The fund is open to pedestrians and those in other vehicles involved in crashes that might have been caused by loss of power steering and power brakes.

GM has set aside $400 million to pay claims but said the total could hit $600 million. The automaker originally linked only 13 deaths to the problem. Its tally didn’t include backseat passengers killed in the cars because even if front air bags had inflated, those passengers wouldn’t have been protected. Under Feinberg’s rules, if the crash was linked to the ignition switch defect they qualify.

On Friday, GM CEO Mary Barra told reporters that she wasn’t surprised that the number has gone up: “No, there’s been so much focus on the original number of 13 that we said. But we’ve always said all along that was the information that we had available to us. We knew as we did this program … it’s one of the reasons why we wanted to reach out and do the program with Ken Feinberg and his expertise. So there’s no surprises. Our goal has been that every person impacted is a part of that program and that’s the process that we’re working through,” Barra said.

Detroit News Staff Reporter Melissa Burden contributed.