GM co-op student report leads to safety recall

Melissa Burden
The Detroit News

General Motors Co. co-op student Nick Sulimirski knew the stalling of his father's Cadillac at highway speeds was a safety risk. When GM instituted its Speak Up for Safety program, he reported it.

His complaint about the 2004 Cadillac CTS-V — which already had been repaired — led to the recall of more than 10,000 older Cadillacs in September. It was the first callback to stem from the program launched in April to encourage employees to report potential safety defects.

Sulimirski, 21, said his dad's CTS-V wasn't running correctly, had poor fuel economy and smelled strongly of gasoline. He and his father found the fuel pump module's electrical connector had melted. That caused fuel to be pumped onto the top of the gas tank instead of into the fuel line.

"I felt like it was pretty dangerous and a fairly large issue to be brought up. But there was really no way of bringing it up, even though I did work at GM at the time as a co-op student," said Sulimirski, a Georgia Institute of Technology mechanical engineering student. "... It wasn't like I could tell my boss about a 10-year old car with over 100,000 miles about a fuel pump issue. There wasn't really a pathway to do that."

That was in 2013. But this past summer, while Sulimirski was working at GM Powertrain in Pontiac, he learned about Speak up for Safety and filled out a form on GM's internal website. He said he was "incredibly surprised" by GM's immediate response.

The recall, GM's 69th recall of the year, was announced Sept. 4 and covered certain 2004-07 CTS-V and 2006-07 Cadillac STS-V cars for an overheating fuel pump module. Upon investigation, GM had discovered the problem could result in fuel leaking onto the ground, diagnostic leak codes or intermittent engine performance that could lead to a stalling and increasing risk of a crash.

Sulimirski's submission is one of hundreds the company has received, said Jeff Boyer, GM's vice president of global vehicle safety. Boyer says GM is getting as many as 60 submissions a week. The automaker has expanded the program to dealerships, too.

GM CEO Mary Barra told reporters late last month in Detroit that the safety program has helped improve the corporate culture.

"Speak up for Safety, the first thing we want people to do is walk across the aisle and make sure they're talking to their fellow engineer, if they happen to be a part of it," she said. "But if they see something that's completely out of their scope and they don't know who to go to, that's what Speak Up for Safety is for."

GM in May agreed to a record-setting $35 million civil penalty and to make significant safety changes within the automaker under a consent agreement with the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. The move followed an investigation into GM's delay of more than a decade to recall 2.59 million older cars for an ignition switch defect now linked to 33 deaths.

A former U.S. attorney hired to complete an internal investigation into why it took GM more than a decade to recall Chevrolet Cobalts, Saturn Ions and other small cars also recommended several safety changes at GM. They included changes to GM's organizational structure, policies and record-keeping; increasing regular communications to employees about safety; and improving communication between groups within the company. In all, the company's global safety team has grown by about 60 people since Boyer was named to the new position in March.

GM has advertised Speak up for Safety on its internal website and through posters. All GM employees — not only engineers — have gone through safety training.

"Safety is everybody's responsibility," Boyer said. "It's not just the people that perhaps have safety in their title."

Sulimirski said he received a response the day after he alerted the company about the problem with his father's car. He had the parts from the car shipped to GM for inspection, and GM found a hole in the fuel pump module's flange. Boyer said it was quickly promoted to the next investigative stage.

"I didn't feel pressured or scared to report this," Sulimirski said in a telephone interview. "There's been a lot of talk recently about a culture of fear within GM, and I really just did not feel that at all. This was an easy way to report this issue."

GM recognized Sulimirski last month for his initiative and commitment to safety. The student — who graduates in May 2016 and hopes to land a full-time job with GM — received a plaque and had lunch with Barra and Boyer.

Sulimirski said his father is happy that other people will be able to have their cars fixed, too.

"I had no idea this issue was so widespread when I reported it. And with GM's research and their investigation, they brought back that this issue was a lot bigger than I had originally even understood," he said. "And it eventually led to a recall, which potentially saves lives and just can be a huge impact on the company and all of the people who own these cars."

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Recall chronology

June 10: GM receives Nick Sulimirski's Speak Up for Safety submission about high-speed stalling with his father's Cadillac.

June 16: Investigation begins.

June 16-Aug. 19: GM finds 24 defective fuel pump cases through warranty repairs and other means.

Aug. 27: GM's Safety and Field Action Decision Authority decides to conduct safety recall.

Sept. 4: Automaker announces recall of certain 2004-07 CTS-V and 2006-07 Cadillac STS-V cars totaling more than 10,000 in the U.S. and nearly 10,500 globally.

October: Letters are sent to owners notifying them of recall — but that parts are not yet available.

Source: GM and NHTSA