Thanksgiving seems like the wrong time to complain about anything so we’ll start today’s PopTort with a small bit of gratitude in the GM ignition switch story. It begins with a story almost too difficult to bear, however.
Ten years ago, Candice Anderson was driving her Saturn Ion, which unbeknownst to her “was among the cars equipped by G.M. with the defective [ignition] switch, which can cause a loss of power, disabling power brakes, power steering and airbags.” The car crashed, killing her boyfriend, Gene Mikale Erickson, and severely injuring her. She was forced to plead guilty to criminally negligent homicide because GM was hiding the ignition switch defect - so the police blamed her. Writes the New York Times,
In May 2007, five months before Ms. Anderson entered her guilty plea, G.M. had conducted an internal review of the crash and quietly ruled its car was to blame, but never let Ms. Anderson or local law enforcement officials know.
After the crash on Nov. 15, 2004, Ms. Anderson’s parents liquidated their 401(k) to retain a lawyer to defend her. While a deal with prosecutors spared her jail time, she was on probation for five years and paid more than $10,000 in fines and restitution.
She also suffered serious injuries in the accident, including a lacerated liver. But the guilt surrounding her own survival and her boyfriend’s death caused her more enduring pain, she said.…
Having long worked as a home health aide and currently in pursuit of a nursing degree, Ms. Anderson said she had suffered professionally from being a convicted criminal. To be accepted to nursing school, she had to petition the Texas Board of Nursing and pay for a psychiatric examination to prove her mental stability. With her criminal record, she would have been barred from at-home caregiving and hospice work, and she had been worried about finding full-time work after graduation.
“Who wants someone taking care of their mother if they have homicide on their record?” she said.
Finally on Monday, Candice was officially exonerated. Thank you. But before you start high-fiving GM, consider this:
On Monday, James R. Cain, a spokesman for G.M., said in a statement: “We have taken a neutral position on Ms. Anderson’s case. It is appropriate for the court to determine the legal status of Ms. Anderson.”…
Ms. Anderson said she still had not heard from G.M. directly.
“I don’t expect I ever will,” she said. Ms. Anderson said she would accept a payment from the automaker’s victim compensation program run by Kenneth R. Feinberg. “My plan is to take the compensation and take this clearing of my record and move on with my life.”
She deserves this and I hope she can move on despite GM’s continuing callousness. Unfortunately, moving on won’t be possible for most ignition switch victims.
Today, the Center for Auto Safety (CAS) sent a letter to Mr. Feinberg noting the appalling claims approval numbers so far - only 79 approvals out of 2180 ignition switch claims in the almost 5 months existence of GM’s victim compensation program. All predictable, of course, given the impossible criteria being used. See CAS’s earlier letter and statement.
Your November 17 letter announced the extension of the claims period for the GM Ignition Compensation Program by one month. That’s good. But the Program must do more to reach out and find victims and then help them overcome GM’s objections. To date, the Program has only approved 79 out of 2,180 claims. Some 1,746 claims have been deemed ineligible, deficient, or undocumented leaving only 355 claims under review. If the Program ends up approving only 20% of the claims filed (the maximum possible if all 355 claims under review are approved), the Program will be a failure.
The Center urges the Program to not only increase personal outreach but also to hire experts to help victims make their case. It’s not fair for GM to bring in experts against victims who have no counsel to assist them and who have little, if any, records because GM concealed the defect for so many years. Again, the Center calls on the Program to establish a prima facie case where the subject vehicle had a history of stalling.
CAS also notes:
Your November 17 letter stated “GM will send a supplemental notice to over 850,000 individuals who are either newly registered owners of eligible GM vehicles or individuals for whom a change in registration, change of address or corrected address has been received.” Andrew Jackson of Marana AZ received this notice on November 22. It came too late because his 2007 Cobalt lost steering and crashed the day before with the airbag failing to deploy. It is rather startling that so many people were not contacted. If they didn’t get the original claim notice, they likely didn’t get the recall notice either – Mr. Jackson never got a recall notice.
What a sad Thanksgiving for his family.
Moreover, Mr. Feinberg's one month extension is not enough. Senator Richard Blumenthal (D-CT) says “it should remain open until U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Robert Gerber decides whether lawsuits against GM are barred under the terms of its Chapter 11 bankruptcy reorganization. Under the fund's rules, victims must waive their right to sue if they accept a payment” but “[b]oth Feinberg and GM insisted the Jan. 31 deadline wouldn't change.”
So in addition to establishing impossible claims criteria and victim outreach deficiencies following deliberate concealment, we now have an unrealistic deadline for victim compensation claims. If anyone was wondering if GM was actually running the show over there despite declaring Mr. Feinberg’s “independence,” these latest development should remove all doubt.