Earlier GM recall may have averted most Cobalt deaths

Hasaya Chansuthus was killed in 2009 when her Chevrolet Cobalt, pictured, crashed in Tennessee. She is one of 12 people whose deaths GM has linked to a faulty ignition switch.
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DETROIT — Of the eight deaths in Chevrolet Cobalts that General Motors has said may be related to faulty ignition switches, seven occurred after April 2006, when GM says it approved a redesign of the part now being recalled, according to research by Automotive News.

In addition, at least one of the four deaths GM has linked to recalled Saturn Ions occurred after the 2006 part change.

The research indicates that all of the deaths involved cars built before the switch was redesigned; had GM simultaneously elected to recall the cars, repairs could have been performed before a majority of the fatal crashes happened. It also shows that only one of the 12 deaths occurred after GM emerged from bankruptcy protection in July 2009.

GM has declined to publicly provide dates or other details of 11 of the 12 fatalities, and some of the victims’ families say they’ve never had contact with GM. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has requested that GM turn over records related to the 34 crashes and 12 deaths it has cited by April 3.

“All of the incidents that are chronicled in our submission will be reviewed with the appropriate internal examiners and external investigators,” GM spokesman Jim Cain said Thursday. “We’re complying with all of it. We’re investigating, and we’re providing full and complete responses to NHTSA as well the other parties investigating what happened.”

A July 2005 crash that killed a 16-year-old female driver in Maryland was listed on a time line submitted to NHTSA in February. The other seven Cobalt deaths, according to Automotive News research, occurred:

• October 2006 in St. Croix County, Wis.

• October 2007 in Lyndhurst, Ohio

• September 2008 in Berrien County, Mich. (2 deaths)

• April 2009 near Knox, Pa. (2 deaths)

• December 2009 near Murfreesboro, Tenn.

GM says the ignitions in the 1.6 million cars it recalled last month can slip or be accidentally bumped out of the run position, disabling the airbags during a crash. All of the accidents it has linked to the recall involve a frontal impact with no airbag deployment. In many of the cases crash investigators found the ignition in “accessory” mode rather than on.

Krystal Kolberg, whose 19-year-old son, Zachary Schoenbach, was killed in the Michigan crash, said she never had any suspicions about the 2006 Cobalt her son’s teenage friend was driving. She says she has never had any contact with GM.

“I do remember no airbags going off in the car,” Kolberg said Thursday. “And I thought that was kind of odd.”

GM opened an internal investigation file on the crash, in which the front end of the car struck a tree, according to a lawsuit filed in San Francisco federal court this week seeking class-action status. One of the lawyers who filed the suit obtained numerous documents from GM in another case related to the faulty ignition switch last year.

“GM received notice of this incident, opened a file, and referred to it as the ‘Harding’ incident,” the suit said. The driver was 18-year-old Joseph P. Harding Jr. He had a blood-alcohol level of 0.12, according to the government’s Fatality Analysis Reporting System. That’s above the drunk driving standard in Michigan, where the legal drinking age is 21.

The database also shows that the airbags didn’t deploy.

Dan Sullivan, chief of the police department whose officers investigated the crash, said he remembers the crash involving very heavy damage and that paramedics had to extricate both of the victims.

“I don’t remember that there was any allegation that the car malfunctioned,” Sullivan said.

In the 2007 crash in Ohio, a 42-year-old woman died when her car ran off the right side of a road, striking a signpost, several garbage cans, a guardrail and two trees.

“The airbags did not deploy,” said Lt. David Strasshofer of the Lyndhurst Police Department. While reviewing photos of the crash scene, Strasshofer said: “There’s no grille, the hood is pushed back. It’s a pretty solid front-end strike.”

GM opened an internal file on that crash as well, according to lawsuit in San Francisco.

Automotive News was unable to reach relatives of the Ohio victim. Stasshofer said the accident report says she was wearing a seat belt and does not indicate any presence of alcohol -- making hers the only one of the eight Cobalt fatalities in which neither seat belts nor alcohol was a factor.

Families of at least two of the people killed in Cobalts, including the sole post-bankruptcy fatality, have previously settled lawsuits with GM. The families of two girls killed in the 2006 Wisconsin crash -- one of whom is not counted in GM’s tally because she was a back-seat passenger -- filed a wrongful-death suit against the automaker last week. Kolberg and a relative of the two people killed in the Knox, Pa., crash told Automotive News they have taken no legal action against GM to date.

It’s unclear whether GM has been involved in lawsuits related to two of the Cobalt deaths and the four Ion deaths.

The terms of the bankruptcy state that GM is liable only for crashes that occurred after it emerged from bankruptcy. But lawyers are trying to work around that immunity in various ways, and Barclays Capital analyst Brian Johnson said in a report Wednesday that he thinks GM could agree to put up to $3 billion in a trust fund to pay claims and any government fines levied against the old GM.

GM CEO Mary Barra has said the company would “do what’s right” for its customers after completing an internal investigation of what happened.

Automotive News identified two of the four Ion fatalities by matching Early Warning Reporting data submitted by GM to federal safety regulators with entries in FARS. One occurred in Texas in November 2004, and the other occurred in Missouri in February 2009.

The FARS database lists three more fatalities in frontal crashes of 2004 Ions between 2004 and May 2009, but it is unclear which two of those GM is counting. GM told regulators in February that all four of the deaths it is aware of involved Ions from the 2004 model year, and it has said none of the 12 deaths occurred after December 2009.

GM says the engineer in charge of the Cobalt’s ignition switch signed a document approving a redesign on April 26, 2006. The alteration was made without a corresponding change in the part number, which former GM engineers told Automotive News was a violation of company protocol.

By the time the part redesign was approved, GM had sent dealers at least two versions of a service bulletin in which drivers who complained of stalling were instructed to remove unnecessary weight from their key rings, but it did not directly give any sort of notification about the problem to customers. It had also bought back at least 10 Cobalts from owners who experienced repeated stalling that dealers were unable to fix, according to a June 2013 deposition of a GM manager.

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

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