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GM hasn't recalled all defective cars, lawsuits allege

UPDATED: 3/25/14 11:18 am ET - new story

DETROIT -- General Motors’ investigation of faulty ignitions turned up more than 250 crashes in which airbags failed to deploy on cars that have not been recalled, according to a lawsuit filed against the automaker this week.

The lawsuit was filed jointly by 12 law firms, including one that previously reached a settlement with GM in the case of a Georgia woman who died in a 2010 Chevrolet Cobalt crash. The lawyer in that case, Lance Cooper, forced GM to turn over hundreds of documents and deposed about a dozen GM engineers. Some of the information Cooper gathered appears publicly for the first time in the new lawsuit.

The suit says that, despite a design change to the Cobalt’s ignition switch during the 2007 model year, GM continued receiving reports of airbags failing in Cobalts from the 2008 through 2010 model years. The recall issued in February covers 1.6 million cars worldwide, including 2005-07 Cobalts and 2003-07 Saturn Ions.

The suit, filed in San Francisco federal court, says GM in 2005 rejected changes that engineers considered to be a “sure solution” to complaints of cars stalling, due partly to the cost involved. The solution comprised a longer detent plunger in the ignition switch, a change that ultimately was made in 2006, and mounting the ignition cylinder higher on the steering column to prevent a driver’s knee from bumping it inadvertently.

“GM’s engineers understood that increasing the detent in the ignition switch alone was not a solution to the problem,” the lawsuit says, “but GM concealed -- and continues to conceal from the public … the nature and extent of the defects, which the current recall will not cure.”

The suit has 13 named plaintiffs, four of whom are listed as owning Cobalts from model years that have not been recalled. It says six of the plaintiffs bought their cars after GM’s 2009 bankruptcy.

A GM spokesman declined to comment on the lawsuit, as well as on other cases that have been brought in recent days.

“GM’s first focus is on ensuring the safety and peace of mind of our customers involved in the recall and fixing their vehicles,” the company wrote in an e-mailed statement. “We are recalling all of the vehicles that were manufactured with the specific ignition switch involved in this condition.”

In January and February 2004, GM engineers who test drove the Ion reported bumping the ignition switch with a knee. One of the engineers described the switch’s low position on the steering column as a “basic design flaw,” as reported March 10 by Automotive News.

According to the San Francisco lawsuit, GM engineers studying the ignition switches in 2012 considered several solutions, including a “shroud to prevent a driver’s knee from contacting the key,” reorienting the ignition so the key faced upward when in the run position and adding a button to prevent the key from turning. All of the proposals were rejected, the suit says.

In a separate case, an Alabama man filed suit against GM on Monday, alleging that his daughter’s death in December 2013, when her 2006 Cobalt crossed the center of a road and hit a logging truck head-on, was related to the defect. That case also argues that GM hasn’t recalled all of the vehicles that the problem affects.

GM has said it is aware of 12 fatalities linked to the recall, with the most recent occurring in December 2009.

GM began a customer-satisfaction campaign -- but not a formal recall -- in April 2012 to fix what it described as a “binding condition” that can prevent turning the key or removing it from the ignition, in some cases making it impossible to turn off the car. The company told owners of certain cars, most of which were not included in last month’s recall, that it would cover the cost of replacing the ignition lock cylinder through May 31, 2014. The campaign covers the 2007-09 Cobalt and Pontiac G5 and 2008-10 Chevrolet HHR.

GM’s description of the problem differs from the issue with the defective ignition switches, which can slip into “accessory” mode while the car is moving, disabling the airbags during a crash. Black-box data showed that the ignition was in “accessory” during 12 of the 23 Cobalt crashes that GM has linked to the recall. GM says it also knows of 11 frontal crashes involving Ions and HHRs in which airbags failed to deploy.

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