Behind the most recent death linked to the GM recall

Hasaya Chansuthus, 25, died in December 2009 after an accident in her purple 2006 Chevrolet Cobalt SS.
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DETROIT -- General Motors says the last fatality in a frontal-impact crash it has linked to a recall of defective ignition switches occurred more than four years ago, in December 2009.

At 2:29 a.m. on Dec. 31, 2009, Hasaya Chansuthus was driving home to Nashville from a party at her boyfriend’s house when she sideswiped a Volkswagen Golf in the rain.

Her purple 2006 Chevrolet Cobalt SS ran off the right shoulder of westbound Interstate 24 and hit a tree, according to a police report obtained by Automotive News. Police told her family that she hit the steering wheel and died of blunt-force trauma upon impact.

The Cobalt’s airbags didn’t deploy. Tire tracks leading to the tree showed no signs that the 25-year-old nursing student tried to steer the car away before the car crashed.

“We were robbed of our sister,” her brother, Brennan Chansuthus, said in an interview Thursday. “She didn’t have a chance. All the safety features that were supposed to keep her protected didn’t work.”

The family sued GM in December 2010 and reached a confidential settlement three months later, according to court records in Murfreesboro, Tenn.

A GM spokesman, Greg Martin, declined to confirm that Hasaya Chansuthus is among the 12 deaths it has linked to the recall of 1.6 million cars globally. GM has said it is aware of one fatality in December 2009 in which a Cobalt airbag failed to deploy in a frontal crash, and none since then.

The crash is the only one among the Early Warning Reporting data submitted to the government by GM that occurred in December 2009 that involved a recalled Cobalt and cited airbags as a factor.

Many, if not all, of the other 11 deaths that GM has linked to the defective switches occurred before the automaker emerged from bankruptcy protection in July 2009. The terms of GM’s bankruptcy shield it from liability for crashes that occurred before that date.

'Customer first'

While that means GM could face no additional legal exposure related to the deaths it is aware of currently, Martin previously has said: "Our principle throughout this process has been to the put the customer first, and that will continue to guide us."

On Feb. 27, two weeks after GM announced the Cobalt recall, Daryl Chansuthus, Hasaya’s mother, submitted a complaint to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

“I wanted to make sure you were aware of my daughter’s death in a Cobalt in which the airbags did not deploy, the seatbelt did not lock, and that we strongly suggest, though GM never confirmed this, had a defective ignition switch,” she wrote in the complaint, which is accessible on NHTSA’s Web site.

Brennan Chansuthus said his family found reports online shortly after the crash suggesting that other Cobalts had been in similar crashes and that the ignition switch could be defective. He said they were glad to learn of the recall last month but wish it had happened in time to prevent the loss they experienced.

“We don’t want other families to go through what we had to go through,” he said. “It was very irresponsible of them if they had known about it all these years. We knew something was clearly wrong with it.”

Brennan Chansuthus, 25, said his father died in a car crash 12 years before his sister was killed. He spoke to Automotive News on behalf of the family because he said his mother still gets too overwhelmed by emotion to discuss his sister’s death.

Unlike several other people who died when the airbags in their Cobalt failed, Hasaya Chansuthus was wearing a seat belt. Her car is pictured here about a week after the accident.

Wearing seat belt

According to the police report, Hasaya Chansuthus had a blood-alcohol content of 0.19 at the time of the crash, more than double the legal limit in Tennessee. But unlike several other people who died when the airbags in their Cobalt failed, she was wearing a seat belt. Police said she was driving the freeway’s speed limit of 70 mph.

Although her decision to drink can be blamed for the crash, her brother said, it had nothing to do with the car’s failure to prevent her death.

Said the family’s lawyer, Rob Gritton: “The airbag is still supposed to deploy regardless of the reason for losing control of the vehicle.”

You can reach Nick Bunkley at nbunkley@crain.com. -- Follow Nick on Twitter

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