GM fund has now approved claims to 100 deaths

David Shepardson
Detroit News Washington Bureau

Washington — The General Motors ignition switch compensation fund said Monday it has now approved compensation for 100 deaths — three more than a week earlier, and much higher than many suggested was likely.

GM initially said last year that 13 deaths were related to 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 even after some within the company became aware there was a problem.

The fund also approved five new injury claims. Of the 184 injury claims approved, 12 are for serious injuries and 172 are for less severe injuries.

Fund officials are using a much broader definition to determine if deaths are related to the defect — including pedestrians who may have been killed as a result of a defective GM car.

GM said the 13 deaths it linked last year “was based on information available to the company at the time, and it was based on a thorough review by engineers of the facts and circumstances of each crash, including any available technical information recorded by the vehicle’s on-board computer.” GM hasn’t continued to track publicly how many deaths it believes are related under that definition.

In contrast to that, said GM spokesman Jim Cain, the compensation program run by lawyer Ken Feinberg is “a settlement program.”

“It is designed to settle claims, rather than make rigorous engineering or legal judgments about the definitive causes of accidents,” he said. “If Feinberg elects to make a settlement offer to a claimant in a case involving a fatality, the fatality associated with that case is added to Feinberg’s count of fatalities (whether or not they accept a settlement offer). GM plays no role in Feinberg’s determinations or decisions to make settlement offers, and Feinberg is not required to explain his decisions to GM.”

Texas lawyer Robert Hilliard, one of the lead lawyers suing GM over ignition defects, said GM intentionally “spun reporters” when it suggested the number of deaths was just 13.

“GM played the media, they played the spin game, and they cemented ‘13’ in the public’s mind even when they knew, before bankruptcy, it was higher,” Hilliard said. “This company knew for years that its ignition switch defect had killed and injured hundreds. It was continuing its dishonesty and supplementing that with disingenuousness when it told the world there were only 13 deaths. I am confident the depositions we are beginning will confirm that when these GM employees have to answer questions under oath subject to perjury.”

Hilliard noted that more than 10 million other vehicles were recalled last year by GM for other ignition switch defects.

“Keep in mind Feinberg was instructed to only consider the deaths caused by the first two recalls. Ultimately, a very small number of cars compared to the overall ignition switch recall,” Hilliard said. “I have over 60 more death cases caused by the GM ignition switch that are not even eligible to apply for fund compensation because the accident involved a later-recalled GM vehicle."

GM CEO Mary Barra told CBS News in an interview airing May 3 that GM would not expand the compensation program to other ignition switch defects.

GM and the fund haven’t made anything public about who it has approved for compensation, except to say that nearly all of the 13 initially linked by GM have been offered compensation. The fund and GM may disclose some details about the families compensated when the program ends.

It is unclear how many deaths occurred outside the front seat of recalled vehicles — or in oncoming vehicles or by pedestrians. It also isn’t known how many claims were for crashes that took place before GM’s bankruptcy restructuring.

The Justice Department, 50 state attorneys general, the Securities and Exchange Commission and Transport Canada are investigating GM’s delayed recall, which led to the firings of 15 GM employees last year.

Some Wall Street analysts have speculated GM may have to pay a fine to resolve the investigations that could top $2 billion. GM in May 2014 paid a $35 million fine to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration to resolve its investigation and agreed to up to three years of intense monitoring.

Camille Biros, deputy fund administrator, said last week she hopes the fund will complete its review of still-outstanding claims by the end of July. In total, 4,342 claims were submitted by the Jan. 31 deadline, including 474 death claims. A total of 626 claims are still under review, including 37 death claims. A total of 1,799 claims have been ruled ineligible, including 227 deaths. Of the claims, 318 have been submitted without documentation.

Biros said Monday that 193 offers have been made; 140 have been accepted and five have been rejected.

Dozens of lawsuits are pending against GM over crashes and economic loss claims linked to the recall in U.S. District Court in New York. The first case is set to go to trial in January.

Lawyers representing owners will depose more than three dozen current and former GM executives over the coming months.

Alicia Boler-Davis, senior vice president of global connected customer experience was to be the first GM official to be deposed last week. Hilliard said the depositions will continue for five months and conclude with CEO Mary Barra on 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 will include many of the 15 former lawyers and employees fired by Barra last year.

DShepardson@detroitnews.com