The number of people killed in crashes caused by a faulty ignition switch in older General Motors cars now stands at 19, almost 50 percent higher than the automaker’s previous estimate, and could rise to well over 100.
That is according to the first report from Kenneth Feinberg, a victims’-compensation consultant hired by GM, who is administering a plan to award payments to crash victims and their families.
GM has said 13 people were killed in crashes involving the cars – older Chevrolet Cobalts, Saturn Ions and other small vehicles – but federal safety investigators and safety experts have said they believed the death toll was higher than GM’s estimate.
In a report Monday, Feinberg said his team has determined there are at least 19 deaths for which heirs are entitled to compensation.
Additionally, there are four “category one” claims stemming from injuries resulting in paralysis, double amputation, permanent brain damage or pervasive burns.
There are also eight “category two” claims — injuries requiring hospitalization or outpatient medical treatment within 48 hours of the crash.
“The current numbers clearly are lower than what they should be,” said Louis Lombardo, a former National Highway Traffic Safety Administration staff member and auto-safety advocate.
He said the compensation plan is designed to reduce GM’s payouts but still provide the automaker with positive publicity.
“For example, the GM-Feinberg plan excludes single-limb amputations in the category-one injuries. How many Americans would agree with that?” Lombardo said.
The numbers could grow significantly, because Feinberg still has hundreds of claims to review.
Feinberg said he has received 445 claims, including 125 for deaths, 58 for serious injuries and 262 for brief hospitalizations or outpatient care.
“No claims have been rejected,” said Amy Weiss, a spokeswoman for Feinberg. “The rest of the claims are still in the process.”
The compensation fund covers accidents involving about 2.6 million vehicles recalled for ignition-switch failures. In those cases, the faulty switch can suddenly shut down the vehicle, turning off crucial functions such as the power steering and air bags.
The automaker knew about the problem for at least a decade but waited until earlier this year to start to recall the cars.
GM has accepted blame for the problem. An internal investigation cited poor communication and incompetence for the automaker’s failure to recall the cars promptly. GM faces ongoing investigations by the NHTSA and Congress into why it delayed recalling the defective vehicles.
The payments awarded to ignition-switch crash victims will vary. For example, Feinberg said, a paralyzed 10-year-old child might get $7.8 million based on lost future earnings, while a parent with two children might receive $4 million after losing a spouse who earned $46,400 a year.
Feinberg is the sole decision-maker on the size of the payments.
Victims or their heirs would have to give up the right to sue GM in order to receive the money.
Feinberg started accepting claims Aug. 1. The deadline to submit claims is Dec. 31.
Under his agreement with the automaker, GM does not have the right to veto an award. Moreover, the program has no cap. GM has said it will pay whatever Feinberg deems is appropriate for each claim.