GM sending 440,000 more letters to recall car owners

David Shepardson
Detroit News Washington Bureau

Washington — – General Motors Co. said Tuesday it plans to send letters next week to 440,000 current and former owners of 2.6 million recalled Chevrolet Cobalts, Saturn Ions and other cars, telling them about the company’s victims compensation program that so far has approved 32 death claims.

Those letters are in addition to similar letters from CEO Mary Barra that GM began sending in July. GM spokesman Jim Cain said by the end of next week, the automaker will have sent 4.7 million notification letters in the U.S. and 581,000 in Canada.

The latest notification includes letters to current owners who bought the cars used. Cain said GM had to conduct significant research to track down current and former owners, in part because some vehicles have changed hands several times. The mailing also took significant time to prepare, he said.

“Our goal is to be just and timely in compensating all of the families who lost loved ones and those who suffered serious physical injury,” Cain said.

In addition, the company’s victims compensation fund run by attorney Kenneth Feinberg sent claim forms this summer to those who had previously filed a claim against GM involving one of the recalled vehicles. The fund was established by GM to compensate those hurt or killed because of defective ignition switches that can allow the key to turn off the car accidentally, disabling power steering and air bags.

Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., said a disclosure in a New York Times report Tuesday — that Jean Averill of Washington, Conn., was one of the earliest victims of GM’s defective ignition switch in a 2003 crash — raised questions about the Detroit automaker’s conduct. The story said the family didn’t know they were eligible to apply for the compensation program that will stop taking claims on Dec. 31.

“The terrible tragedy of Jean Averill’s death was compounded by the unconscionable chain of error and denial that caused it and the outrageous, deliberate concealment that kept her family in the dark,” Blumenthal said. “General Motors’ failure to inform the Averill family of its clear internal determination — that Jean’s death resulted from the company’s continuing use of a defective ignition switch — undercuts everything it has said about its good faith and integrity. If the company is really sincere in seeking to restore and retain public trust, and embrace a culture of honesty and safety, it must immediately come clean and contact every possible victim’s family.”

Blumenthal wants GM to lift the Dec. 31. deadline. “This continuing, purposeful concealment strains credulity and stains the company’s conscience, setting back efforts to reclaim GM’s good name. Dealing fairly with this injustice to the Averill family will demonstrate whether the company is sincere,” Blumenthal said.

Cain declined to comment directly about Blumenthal’s statements.

GM defended the program, saying since June 30 when Feinberg held a press conference, there has been overwhelming public attention to the program. In July, Barra and Feinberg testified about the program in front of a U.S. Senate committee. GM’s website at www.GMIgnitionUpdate.com has received more than 750,000 visits since the Feinberg compensation program was announced.

GM also said more than 3,570 news reports in the United States alone have been published mentioning the compensation program.

On Monday, the fund said it approved two more death claims and four more injury claims last week. That raised the number of approved death claims to 32, and the number of approved injury claims to 35. GM initially said 13 deaths were linked to the ignition switch defect.

The fund has made 11 cash payments and 40 total offers — and 28 have been accepted, deputy fund director Camille Biros said Monday.

GM has said it expects to spend $400 million on claims, but has said they could rise as high as $600 million.

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.

DShepardson@detroitnews.com