GM ignition claims surge to 4,180

David Shepardson
Detroit News Washington Bureau

Washington — General Motors Co's ignition switch compensation program got a surge of claims in its final days, adding more than 1,100 submissions in the final week before the Saturday deadline, bringing the total number to 4,180 — including 455 death claims.

The final tally of claims may rise, because any claims postmarked by Saturday will be considered by the program administered by compensation lawyer Kenneth Feinberg and his law firm.

The program's deputy administrator, Camille Biros, said in a Detroit News interview Sunday that claims for deaths linked to now-recalled GM cars with defective ignition switches rose by more than 100 in the final week to 455, up from 338 a week earlier. Claims for the most severe injuries rose to 278, up from 224 a week earlier, and claims for less severe injuries rose to 3,447, up from 2,508 a week earlier.

Separately, Biros said the fund has approved three additional claims, including one death, to 128 in total, including 51 deaths, eight serious injury claims and 69 less serious injuries.

The surge in claims before the Jan. 31 deadline means the program will spend until at least "very late spring" before it can rule on all the claims, Biros said. Feinberg has said it could take as long as six months from the time the program received the final claim for serious injuries or deaths. Hundreds of the final claims were submitted with little or no paperwork, making it difficult to assess how many may be deemed valid.

Biros said the program has made 93 settlement offers; 40 have been paid and 49 accepted; none have been officially rejected. The program has determined that 482 of the claims are ineligible, including one that sought compensation for a dog that died, and another seeking funds for an early 1960s Chevrolet.

Biros said the big jump in claims was "not unexpected." She said many in other compensation programs often wait until the last minute to file claims.

GM set up the fund to compensate those hurt and the families of those killed in 2.59 million now-recalled Chevrolet Cobalts, Saturn Ions and other cars with ignition switches that can inadvertently shut off the engine and disable power steering and air bags. GM delayed recalling the cars for nearly a decade after some within the company became aware there was a problem.

Georgia attorney Lance Cooper said Monday his firm submitted 45 claims to the fund, including 20 for deaths. Of those, five death claims were accepted, two were denied and 13 are pending, Cooper said. He said he believes the 13 pending claims will be approved because the air bags did not deploy in those crashes.

Cooper said of the five clients whose death claims were approved by the fund, all agreed to accept the offers. He said four of the five were pre-GM bankruptcy cases and in some cases the vehicle is no longer available for evidence.

"One family just felt like they wanted to have some closure, just put this behind them," he said.

Cooper said the two clients whose death claims were denied by the fund — because side air bags deployed — likely will file lawsuits against GM.

The automaker has said it expects to spend $400 million on claims, but that the amount could rise to $600 million.

Feinberg has said all approved death claims will get at least $1 million. Based on the initial claims received and payments made, GM is not expected to see its costs top that range, but there are still hundreds of claims that haven't been reviewed.

Biros and Feinberg said they see no need for the filing deadline to be extended. Last week, GM said it wouldn't extend the Jan. 31 deadline to file claims, despite a call to do so by two U.S. senators.

In November, Feinberg successfully asked GM to extend the fund from Dec. 31 to Jan. 31. He said at least one family of the 13 deaths originally linked by GM to the ignition switch defects was unaware of the program.

More lawsuits likely will be filed against GM, said Cooper, who thinks GM should have extended the fund deadline to run for a year.

A federal bankruptcy court is deciding whether to let claims proceed. General Motors Co., which was formed in a government-sponsored sale of assets from its predecessor's 2009 bankruptcy reorganization, has said it will not invoke its bankruptcy liability shield in the case of injuries or deaths to avoid paying claims, but is fighting other claims made by owners of vehicles for economic losses.

A hearing is set for Feb. 17 in U.S. Bankruptcy Court in New York on the issue. If GM wins, victims of crashes before the restructuring likely could not sue GM.

Staff Writer Melissa Burden contributed.