Here’s why it’s understandable that the families of some victims are disappointed by the $900 million General Motors settlement of its ignition switch defect: No one is being held criminally responsible for the more than 120 deaths. And while the fine seems like a big number, it’s less than half of a year’s profit.
The defect caused engines to shut down while vehicles were being driven. That disabled air bags and power steering and led to many crashes over a decade. The New York Times has done extensive investigative reporting on the topic.
People told tragic stories of loved ones killed in crashes in vehicles made by General Motors, and then having the pain made deeper when the company refused to acknowledge there was a defect. The longer GM kept quiet about the problem, the higher the death toll rose. People died because GM officials knew they had dangerous defect, and refused to act. That’s what makes the government’s refusal to prosecute anyone so confounding.
Preet Bharara, U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York and no softie when it comes to hunting down criminals, said no law specifically prohibits the cover-up GM engaged in. If that’s the case, Congress needs to correct that shortcoming. The prospect of going to jail might persuade future executives to take the right path when a defect is discovered.
Let’s not forget that this is a company that received a handsome $49 billion government bailout in 2009. Getting a pass for breaking the public trust wasn’t part of the deal.
Bharara did note GM’s recent cooperation and remedial action, which he called “fairly extraordinary.” But he noted that good behavior “does not absolve GM or any company of responsibility.”
GM is under new leadership. Some executives were fired. Mary T. Barra, the chief executive who essentially stepped into a disaster not of her own making, has repeatedly apologized. In a recent speech to 1,000 workers, she said: “Let’s pause for a moment and remember that people were hurt and died in our cars.”
Barra stated that restoring GM’s battered reputation will take more than apologies. She’s right. There must be a renewed emphasis on handling safety complaints promptly, admitting mistakes and committing to changes.