$1 for 3 months. Save 97%.
$1 for 3 months. Save 97%.

Current, former GM CEOs to be deposed in defect suits

Melissa Burden
The Detroit News

General Motors Co. CEO Mary Barra and two former GM chief executives — Dan Akerson and Rick Wagoner — are slated to be deposed this month in connection with lawsuits tied to the automaker’s deadly ignition switch defect.

Barra’s deposition is scheduled for Oct. 19 at the Kirkland & Ellis law firm in Houston. It previously had been set for Thursday.

The depositions — witness testimony taken before a trial as part of a case’s discovery phase — are being taken for a group of consolidated injury and death cases related to GM’s delayed recall of 2.59 million older Chevrolet Cobalts, Saturn Ions and other cars with faulty ignition switches that have been linked to 124 deaths and several hundred injuries. The first suit is set for trial in January.

Barra has said she had no knowledge of an ignition switch problem before late December 2013 when she learned an analysis was being conducted into the Cobalt. She said she learned of the Jan. 31 decision to recall the vehicles by the GM team in a phone call. That was two weeks after she took over as CEO.

The faulty switches can allow the ignition key to inadvertently shut off the engine while driving, disabling power steering and air bags.

Akerson, who is Barra’s predecessor, is scheduled for a deposition Oct. 15 in Washington, D.C., according to a court filing. Last year, Akerson told The Detroit News he had never heard about the ignition issue when he was CEO.

Wagoner, who led the company before its 2009 bankruptcy and was fired by the Obama administration, has been rescheduled for a deposition to Oct. 22. He was to be deposed last month, but a family emergency delayed his testimony.

GM’s internal report into the delayed recall found that Wagoner in March 2009 may have viewed a presentation that included a “backup slide” that referenced inadvertent cutoff issues in Cobalts. The presentation was focused on warranty cost issues of the ignition switches, not safety issues; the company initially saw the problem as a customer satisfaction issue. Wagoner told investigators he did not recall seeing the slide.

Witnesses will be videotaped and recorded by a certified court reporter. Many of the depositions are taking place at the Renaissance Center in Detroit, GM’s headquarters.

Anton Valukas, a former U.S. attorney and chairman of Jenner & Block, who GM hired to head the automaker’s internal report into what went wrong in the delayed recall, and Maureen Foley-Gardner, former GM director of field performance evaluation, were deposed earlier this week, according to a court filing.

Others on the list include several GM engineers who were mentioned in court filings and congressional investigation documents into the carmaker.

Former head of GM communications Selim Bingol, who left the company in April last year, is scheduled to be interviewed Oct. 13 in Charlotte. Others to be deposed this month include Gerald Johnson, GM’s vice president of operational excellence, who formerly was North America vice president of manufacturing and a member of the GM recall committee; Jeff Boyer, GM’s vice president of global vehicle safety; former GM General Counsel Thomas Gottschalk, who now works for Kirkland & Ellis; and communications executive Terry Rhadigan.

A GM spokesman said a few additional depositions are expected to go into November. GM President Dan Ammann at one point was scheduled for a deposition this week, but he was taken off the schedule.

Depositions for the lawsuits began in May and have included dozens of people. A number of GM executives and many of the 15 former lawyers and executives Barra fired last year have been deposed. The dismissals followed an internal investigation that found no cover-up, but it did uncover patterns of incompetence that caused GM to take more than a decade to recall the cars.

Last month, GM announced a settlement of a class-action lawsuit and settlements that could cover 1,380 death and personal injury claimants, including more than half of the personal injury plaintiffs who had pending lawsuits in the group of consolidated cases. Those settlements are expected to total $575 million.

GM has pegged the cost of the delayed recall at about $2.35 billion so far. But the company continues to face investigations by the Securities and Exchange Commission, 50 state attorneys general, the Federal Trade Commission, Canadian officials and numerous lawsuits.

In September, GM agreed to pay a $900 million fine to the Justice Department and to three years of oversight by a federal monitor, ending a criminal investigation. In May 2014, the automaker paid a then-record $35 million fine to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration for not recalling the vehicles sooner.

The company has dramatically changed and bolstered its safety practices and established a victim compensation fund. The fund administrator ultimately approved 124 death claims and several hundred injury claims. The company had said previously it had tied 13 deaths to the defect.

(313) 222-2319