GM fund approves 3 new death claims to 107

David Shepardson and Melissa Burden
The Detroit News

The General Motors ignition switch compensation fund said Monday that 107 deaths have been approved — up three from the previous week.

The fund run by lawyer Ken Feinberg said in a report posted Monday that it has also approved eight new injury claims through Friday, bringing the total number of approved claims for deaths and injuries to 306. Of the 199 injury claims approved, 12 are for serious injuries and 179 are for less severe injuries.

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 U.S. Justice Department is nearing a decision on whether to charge GM criminally in connection with the delay — and could seek to require a guilty plea or offer a “deferred prosecution” agreement — along with a fine expected to top $1.2 billion.

The U.S. Attorney’s Office in Manhattan is being aided by a federal grand jury, the FBI, 50 state attorneys general, the Securities and Exchange Commission and Transport Canada in an investigation of GM’s delayed recall, which led to the firings of 15 GM employees last year.

It’s not clear if federal prosecutors will seek to charge individual GM employees.

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. Last week, NHTSA said it was extending the monitoring until at least May 2016.

GM has 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 said how many deaths it believes are related under that definition.

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.

In total, 4,342 claims were submitted by the Jan. 31 deadline, including 474 death claims. A total of 374 claims are still under review, including 28 death claims. A total of 2,163 claims have been ruled ineligible, including 253 deaths. Of the claims, 73 have been submitted without documentation.

Camille Biros, deputy fund administrator, said earlier this month she hopes the fund will complete its review of still-outstanding claims by the end of July.

GM spokesman Jim Cain has called the compensation program run by lawyer Ken Feinberg “a settlement program.”

“It is designed to settle claims, rather than make rigorous engineering or legal judgments about the definitive causes of accidents,” Cain 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.”

Georgia attorney Lance Cooper said in an interview last week that some cases are being denied because there is not enough proof the ignition switch defect caused a crash or the injuries or fatalities. His firm has had 20 denials from the fund, including 11 that deaths claims.

“Unfortunately, GM is benefiting to a certain extent from the fact that a lot of these crashes are so old that lots of the evidence is gone,” he said. “And therefore it’s hard for an individual to prove that the ignition switch defect caused their crash and their injuries.”

Cooper believes the death toll will continue to grow. The Cooper Firm in Marietta, Georgia, is still waiting to hear back on 13 claims, including seven that are deaths. He said if the fund denies his clients’ claim and the firm feels it has strong evidence that GM’s ignition switch is involved in fatality, the firm is filing lawsuits.

The first trial stemming from the dozens of suits filed against GM and consolidated in front of a federal judge in New York is set to start in January. Lawyers are deposing dozens of current and former GM executives, including GM CEO Mary Barra set for October.