Former GM CEO Wagoner to answer recall questions

Melissa Burden, and David Shepardson

Washington — Former General Motors CEO Rick Wagoner, who led the automaker before its 2009 bankruptcy and was fired by the Obama administration, will be deposed by lawyers suing the Detroit automaker over the company's delayed ignition switch recall of 2.6 million vehicles linked to more than 100 deaths.

Wagoner is scheduled to be questioned Sept. 2. Bob Hilliard, a Texas attorney who is one of three lead attorneys for class-action personal injury and death lawsuits against GM, said Tuesday he is seeking to land depositions of Wagoner's successors as CEO: Fritz Henderson, Ed Whitacre and Dan Akerson. They were on the job when the U.S. government owned a significant share of the automaker. Hilliard said he wants to get "every CEO who was there during the active coverup."

Rick Wagoner

GM has repeatedly denied any coverup, attributing the delayed recalls to a culture of incompetence and neglect.

Lawyers also will question GM's former top lawyer and the lead author of an internal investigation into why it took GM more than a decade to recall cars for the ignition switch defect.

A list of current and former GM employees and executives obtained by The Detroit News from Hilliard discloses interviews that haven't previously been made public. More than 55 people are scheduled to be deposed. 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.

Former GM general counsel Michael Millikin, who came under heavy criticism from members of Congress, is to be questioned Aug. 26.

Anton Valukas, who wrote GM's internal report, will be questioned Sept. 24. His internal report on the company's callback delay, written after reviewing 41 million pages of records and interviewing 230 witnesses, painted a devastating picture of a company where no one took responsibility and executives repeatedly failed to share bad news with bosses.

"We're in the discovery and deposition phase, so this is all part of the normal process (of litigation) that goes to trial in early January," GM spokesman Jim Cain said Tuesday.

Hilliard also is seeking depositions of Frederick Fromm, a GM vice president and former general counsel of GM North America from 2009-11; Terry Woychowski, former vice president of global vehicle program management who now is an engineering and quality executive for American Axle & Manufacturing Holdings; and Kathy Anderson, a GM field performance assessment engineer. He said lawyers are still adding people to the deposition list as they uncover documents that indicate people were aware of the ignition switch issue and tried to bring it to management's attention.

GM CEO Mary Barra fired 15 employees and disciplined five in the wake of the internal investigation.

So far, 109 deaths and more than 200 injuries have been linked to ignition switches in Chevrolet Cobalts, Saturn Ions and other small cars. The switches can move inadvertently to the "off" or "accessory" position, disabling air bags, power steering and power brakes.

Last year Akerson told The Detroit News he had never heard about the ignition issue when he was CEO.

The Valukas report said then-GM CEO Wagoner in March 2009 may have viewed a presentation that included a "back-up slide" with a reference to an inadvertent cut-off issue in Cobalts. It focused solely on the warranty cost issue of the ignition switches but not on safety or air bag nondeployments. GM initially saw the problem as a customer satisfaction issue, not a safety issue.

Wagoner told investigators he did not recall seeing the slide, which was found on his computer. Investigators conducted extensive efforts to determine if he had viewed it but were unable to determine if he had. Wagoner, who's now on multiple corporate boards, didn't return an email seeking comment Tuesday.

A September 2005 GM email released by Congress showed that engineers opted not to fix the ignition switch because warranty savings would not be offset by the costs of improving the switch: It would cost 90 cents, but the warranty savings were 10 cents to 15 cents. Barra called that analysis "inappropriate."

The Valukas report placed much of the blame on a now-fired engineer, Ray DeGiorgio. The investigation found he made a "catastrophic" decision in 2002 to approve ignition switches so far below specifications that they could result in cars stalling and air bags failing to deploy in crashes.

DeGiorgio is to be questioned June 18-19. His former boss, Gary Altman, will be questioned for two days the following week.

Laura Andres, a GM employee who in 2005 alerted the automaker of what she considered a serious safety issue related to an ignition switch problem in a 2006 Chevrolet Impala, will face questions June 24.

Several former and current GM lawyers and engineers are being deposed. So are some of the 15 employees Barra fired, including Michael Robinson, GM's vice president for regulatory affairs. Robinson's deposition is set for Aug. 18.

Also on the list are Thomas Gottschalk, former GM general counsel; Lori Queen, GM's former vehicle line executive for small cars including the Cobalt; and Gerald Johnson, GM's vice president of operational excellence who was North America manufacturing vice president and a member of the GM executive committee charged in late 2013 with deciding whether to recall cars.

The depositions are tied 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.

Many of the depositions will be held in Detroit.

In March, lawyers disclosed that Barra is among more than three dozen current and former GM executives and employees who will be deposed by lawyers suing the automaker. Barra's deposition is scheduled for Oct. 8, making her the last person on the list. Alicia Boler-Davis, GM's senior vice president of global connected customer experience, had her deposition moved from May to Sept. 3.

Hilliard said depositions conducted so far have been "positive and favorable."

GM initially said last year that 13 deaths were related to the now-recalled cars. The automaker delayed recalling them for nearly a decade after some within the company became aware there was a problem.