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GM CEO Barra to be questioned in ignition lawsuits

David Shepardson and Melissa Burden
The Detroit News

General Motors Co. CEO Mary Barra is among more than three dozen current and former GM executives and employees who will be deposed by lawyers suing the automaker over its delayed recall of 2.59 million cars linked to at least 67 deaths.

Bob Hilliard, a Texas attorney who is one of three lead attorneys for class-action personal injury and death lawsuits against GM, said the depositions of GM execs will begin May 6 with Alicia Boler-Davis, senior vice president of global connected customer experience. The depositions will continue for five months and conclude with Barra’s Oct. 8.

A deposition is the sworn, out-of-court oral questioning and testimony of a witness that is reduced to writing for later use in court or for discovery purposes.

The depositions are connected to a group of consolidated lawsuits that involve injuries and deaths for crashes tied to the ignition switch defect that occurred after GM emerged from bankruptcy in 2009; some cases allege that the defect and numerous GM recalls last year have reduced the value of their cars. The first case in the consolidated group is set for trial in January.

The depositions will include many of the 15 former lawyers and executives fired by Barra last year. Those dismissals came after an internal GM investigation found patterns of incompetence but no cover-up into why it took GM more than a decade to recall older Chevrolet Cobalts and other cars for defective ignition switches.

Others slated for questioning include David Cary, engineering director; Maureen Foley-Gardner, director of field performance evaluation; Doug Parks, now vice president of product programs for GM who was the chief engineer on the Cobalt; and Lucy Clark Daugherty, a deputy for GM’s general counsel for the North America region. Two high-level engineers who retired last year from GM also are on the list: John Calabrese, who retired as vice president of GM engineering, and Jim Federico, executive director of global vehicle integration.

“This will be the first time GM employees will be made to answer difficult questions under oath about the specific details of the documents and their role in these deaths and injuries,” Hilliard said in a statement.

Actually, Barra testified under oath four times before congressional committees probing the ignition switch debacle.

GM spokesman Jim Cain confirmed the company has agreed to the depositions. The ground rules, including how long they last, were negotiated between both sides and will be approved by the judge overseeing the case.

Hilliard, in an email, said GM’s former general counsel Michael Millikin and fired ignition switch engineer Ray DeGiorgio will be deposed, but dates for those depositions have not been finalized.

Hilliard says documents turned over by GM raise questions about the internal report that it commissioned. He alleges GM is involved in a cover-up. The internal report suggested a culture of “incompetence and neglect” was to blame — not a purposeful effort over years to hide the deadly defect.

“Given the damning documents we have uncovered throughout the course of this litigation, the dance floor is very, very small and no GM witness will be able to shuffle around the truth,” Hilliard wrote in an email. “I expect we will find out how high up this cover-up goes.”

Hilliard wants to see emails obtained by Lance Cooper, a Georgia attorney who recently settled a high-profile switch defect case with GM, “that may implicate GM’s law firm of King & Spalding as well as other outside counsel in GM’s ‘massive cover-up,’ ” he said.

GM’s internal report, led by former U.S. attorney Anton Valukas, addresses King & Spalding’s role in ignition switch lawsuits.

“If the biggest law firms in the country helped GM cover up the cover-up, then the game changes and the targets shift,” Hilliard said in a statement. “GM pays the world’s biggest law firms millions of dollars, and if some of that money was paid to help with this ‘massive cover-up,’ then those firms have their fingerprints on the defective ignition switches and the blood of thousands of young victims on their hands.”

Lawyers including Hilliard and Cooper who are suing GM and have made strong allegations of a cover-up have not made documents public to back up their claims. GM on Thursday declined to comment on the allegations.

GM initially said last year that 13 deaths were related to now-recalled Cobalts, Saturn Ions and other cars with ignition switches that can inadvertently shut off the engine and disable power steering and air bags. The automaker delayed recalling the cars for nearly a decade after some within the company became aware there was a problem.

The U.S. Attorney’s Office in Manhattan, aided by the FBI and a federal grand jury, has been investigating the delayed recall. The Securities and Exchange Commission and 49 state attorneys general are investigating, as are Canadian officials.

In May, GM paid a record $35 million fine to NHTSA for the delayed response, and agreed to up to three years of monitoring. Wall Street analysts think GM may eventually need to pay billions to settle government investigations.

GM has maintained it is cooperating fully with investigations, and that it has turned over millions of documents that have been requested.

GM has established an independently administered victims’ compensation fund as a result of the ignition switch defect. In total, GM’s compensation fund has thus far approved claims for 67 deaths and 113 injury claims.

The fund’s deputy administrator, Camille Biros, said this week that the fund has extended 119 offers; 93 have been accepted and five rejected. If a person or victim’s family accepts an award, it must give up the right to sue GM.