General Motors ordered 500,000 replacement ignition switches last December, nearly two months before it initiated the first recall of what became 2.6 million vehicles equipped with defective switches now tied to at least 32 deaths.
The disclosure comes from e-mails released by Texas attorney Robert Hilliard. They show that GM placed an urgent order for switches from supplier Delphi Corp. on Dec. 18 for a safety issue. The cars weren’t recalled until Feb. 13.
GM CEO Mary Barra said she learned in late December, when she headed the company’s global product-development group, that GM employees were reviewing safety issues related to the Chevrolet Cobalt. But she didn’t learn that there would be a recall until near the end of January.
Hilliard and his Corpus Christi firm, Hilliard, Munoz and Gonzalez, represent dozens of plaintiffs who have sued the automaker for wrongful deaths or injuries that may have been caused by the defective ignition switches.
The switches can slip out of the run position, either from excessive weight on a key ring or by drivers’ knees accidentally hitting the key, causing engines in cars such as the 2003-2007 Chevrolet Cobalt to stall. That can cut power to the power steering, brakes and air bags, causing drivers to lose control of their cars.
General Motors said it is routine procedure to order parts ahead of a recall.
“These e-mails are further confirmation that our system needed reform, and we have done so. We have reorganized our entire safety investigation and decision process and have more investigators, move issues more quickly and make decisions with better data,” GM said in a prepared statement.
The new process enables top executives to make recall decisions more quickly so owners can take action sooner, the company said.
Hilliard is focused on the flaws in the old system.
“GM was clearly scrambling and, at the same time, intentionally concealing. GM labeled the order ‘urgent’ and told their supplier to ship ASAP and to use an ‘aggressive schedule,’ ” Hilliard said.
Hilliard alleged that at least 85 injuries and one death occurred during the eight weeks between GM’s ordering the replacement parts and the recall.
The lag between when GM ordered the replacement switches and the recall was not covered in a voluminous report issued earlier this year by former federal prosecutor Anton Valukas that found shortcomings in multiple practices by the automaker.