GM settled with families over fatal 2004 crashes linked to ignition switches

DETROIT -- General Motors Co. agreed to settlements with family members of two people who died in separate frontal crashes of Saturn Ions in 2004 in which airbags did not deploy, Automotive News has learned.

The crashes, which represent the earliest deaths related to GM’s recall of faulty ignition switches, occurred July 4, 2004, in Visalia, Calif., and Nov. 15, 2004, near Canton, Texas.

Automotive News now has identified 12 of the 13 fatalities GM has linked to the recall through police reports, death reports GM submitted to federal regulators, court filings and interviews. GM has repeatedly declined to comment on or identify any of the individual crashes it is counting, aside from a July 2005 crash that previously represented the earliest known fatality.

A GM spokesman contacted for this report declined to confirm that the 2004 crashes are linked to the recall or to comment on any lawsuits filed by victims’ families.

The July 2004 crash happened when a 2004 Ion sedan jumped a curb and hit a utility pole in a parking lot head-on at 1:12 a.m. The airbags did not deploy, according to the police report and a corresponding entry in the government’s Fatality Analysis Reporting System.

The driver, 37-year-old Shara Lynn Towne, died on impact. She was alone in the car, and the police report does not indicate that anyone witnessed the crash. Investigators preliminarily listed inappropriate speed as a possible cause but did not reach a firm conclusion.

GM apparently learned of Towne’s death nearly two years later, in March 2006, when her husband filed a lawsuit against the automaker, the dealership that sold it and two suppliers who made some of the car’s safety systems. GM reported the crash to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration in the second quarter of 2006.

The automaker agreed to an out-of-court settlement and the case was dismissed in September 2007, court records show.

Texas fatality

In November 2004, another 2004 Ion sedan failed to negotiate a curve on a narrow county highway and slammed into a tree.

“It hit the tree head-on,” said Tom Tyler, who lives nearby and saw the aftermath of the crash.

The passenger, Gene Mikale Erickson, 25, died of blunt-force head trauma, his mother, Rhonda Erickson, told Automotive News this week. The driver, his 21-year-old girlfriend, survived but initially was in critical condition with broken bones and liver damage, Rhonda Erickson said.

The FARS entry for the crash, which happened around midday in dry weather conditions, said the airbags did not deploy, which Rhonda Erickson confirmed.

The driver and Gene Mikale Erickson’s ex-wife each sued and reached separate settlements with GM, Rhonda Erickson said. GM reported the crash to NHTSA in the fourth quarter of 2004 when one of the cases was filed, then again two years later when the other claim was made.

Those reports caused GM to originally report that five people had been killed in Ion crashes linked to the ignition-switch recall. It later revised the number to four after realizing that it had double-counted Erickson.

Heard about recall

Rhonda Erickson said she had heard about the recall but did not realize it included the car her son died in until being contacted by Automotive News. She said she had cosigned for the Ion so that her son’s girlfriend could buy it less than a year before the crash.

“They had taken that car back several times for repairs,” Erickson said. “Maybe this will keep some other mother from losing their child.”

Erickson said she was not involved in any of the litigation but that her son’s ex-wife sued to provide for their two daughters. “I don’t want anything,” she said. “I want my son back.”

GM told NHTSA in March that all four of the Ion fatalities it has linked to the recall involved cars from the 2004 model year. Marie Sachse, 81, who died in February 2009 near St. Louis, is also among the four. The identity of the fourth victim remains unclear. GM settled a claim by Sachse’s family as part of its bankruptcy case.

The recall also is linked to nine deaths in Chevrolet Cobalts.

GM informed NHTSA of four deaths in 2004 Ions potentially related to airbag defects between 2003 and mid-2013, as part of its mandated Early Warning Reporting submissions. In addition to the crashes that killed Towne, Erickson and Sachse, GM listed a death in Connecticut in December 2003. But the government’s fatality database does not list any crash matching the information about the Connecticut report.

Unusual interest

Jim Dowd, a lawyer who represented Sachse’s son and daughter-in-law, said he found it unusual that GM employees began asking the couple to see the car and its black-box data even before he contacted the company or threatened to sue. Looking back, he wonders if “they wanted to figure out if it’s a claim so they could name it as a creditor in the bankruptcy filing.”

Dowd said he was still investigating the crash when GM filed for bankruptcy protection on June 1, 2009, which meant the Sachses’ only recourse was to become unsecured creditors.

Ultimately, Dowd said they received “a very, very modest sum dictated by the nature of it being a bankruptcy claim.”

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