Victims' families meet with Barra, call for legislation

Laura Christian in Washington today. She described her meeting with GM CEO Mary Barra on her Facebook page earlier today.
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WASHINGTON -- General Motors CEO Mary Barra held a tearful meeting here late on Monday with about 20 relatives of people who died in GM vehicles that have been subject to recalls and investigations into faulty ignition switches.

“We told her about the loved one we lost because of GM's defect,” Laura Christian, the mother of crash victim Amber Marie Rose, wrote on her Facebook page this morning. “Tears flowed and many Kleenex were used. At least by us.”

Barra’s meeting lasted about an hour at GM’s office in Washington on the eve of her testimony before a House Energy and Commerce subcommittee today. Barra was accompanied by two GM executives, including Jeff Boyer, who was recently appointed GM’s vice president of global vehicle safety, a person who attended the meeting told Automotive News today.

Christian’s 16-year-old daughter was killed in July 2005, the first known fatality connected to GM’s faulty ignition switch. After the recall announcement finally explained why the airbag in Amber’s Chevrolet Cobalt failed -- but revealed that GM had opportunities to act sooner -- Christian devoted herself to digging for answers and trying to prevent more deaths.

A GM spokesman confirmed that the meeting took place but declined to discuss it further. “Out of respect to the families we are keeping details of the meeting private,” he wrote in an e-mail.

Also attending Monday’s meeting were Ken and Jayne Rimer, of Hammond, Wis., whose daughter Natasha Weigel died in 2006 in a 2005 Chevrolet Cobalt driven by her friend, Megan Ungar-Kerns, now Megan Phillips.

Old GM issues

The Rimers decided not to sue GM over the fatal crash. And when the company went into bankruptcy, that option was closed off to them. Under the terms of GM’s bankruptcy, crashes that occurred before the bankruptcy occurred are the liability of “Old GM,” and any victims have to seek compensation from a defunct company with few assets – not the profitable company that rebounded from bankruptcy after 2009.

“We want GM to take ownership of this,” Ken Rimer said in an interview outside the U.S. Capitol on Tuesday morning. “Whether it’s old GM or new GM, it’s still GM.”

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration commissioned a “special crash investigation” of the accident that killed Natasha Weigel.

Special report

Submitted to NHTSA in April 2007 by Indiana University investigators, this report suggested that a faulty ignition switch -- a common complaint for owners of the car -- could have been the reason why the car’s airbags failed to deploy.

NHTSA did not start an investigation. Ken Rimer said that he had continued to look into the circumstances surrounding his daughter’s fatal crash, but never saw a copy of the agency’s report until GM announced a recall this year.

Christian wrote that she and Barra disagreed about whether the cars being recalled are still safe to drive. GM has said the cars subject to the recall can still be driven safely if the key in the ignition isn’t weighed down by other objects.

“I did get a positive answer regarding recall notification,” Christian added in her Facebook posting. “I was concerned that only original owners would receive a recall notice. She said they were trying to notify owners by their registration meaning secondhand owners should receive notice.”

Legislative effort

Christian’s group held a press conference earlier today touting legislation that would overhaul the nation’s auto safety laws and increase public access to automakers’ safety reports to NHTSA. Sens. Ed Markey, D-Mass., and Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., introduced the bill on March 25 and spoke at today’s press conference.

“We can make sure this doesn’t happen again,” Markey told the gathered crowd, a day before the U.S. Senate Commerce Committee’s consumer protection subcommittee was scheduled to hold a hearing of its own. “We cannot allow the next chapter in this automobile safety tragedy to have the same ending.”

Nick Bunkley and Philip Nussel contributed to this report.

You can reach Gabe Nelson at gnelson@crain.com.

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