Compensation, yes, but no happy endings for GM crash victims' families

Daryl Chansuthus bristled at the word “compensation” when we spoke on the phone this week.

Compensation doesn’t fill the void created on a rainy December night five years ago, when her 25-year-old daughter’s Chevrolet Cobalt SS hit a tree off Interstate 24 in Tennessee and no airbags deployed. More than compensation, Chansuthus wants accountability.

Actually, she added after a short pause, there’s something else she wishes for most of all. 

But the only thing General Motors is offering her -- and others who lost loved ones to a faulty part that it could have fixed a decade ago for a tiny fraction of the billions of dollars it’s about to pay out -- is money.

On the other hand, many families never even thought they’d get that.

In the days since GM’s compensation plan for deaths and injuries caused by faulty ignition switches was announced, victims’ relatives and lawyers have been almost universally critical. Some want the eligibility or documentation requirements to be more lenient. Some want GM to pay more as punishment for its negligence. Some want more answers.

Ken Feinberg, a lawyer who has repeatedly taken on the unenviable job of calculating human lives in terms of dollars and cents, said he wasn’t hired to punish GM. If that’s what you want, go ahead and sue, he said. Many already have, and more are certain to do so soon.

For more answers, families may have to depend on the Justice Department or Congress, both of which are in the midst of investigations. GM could wind up paying the same sort of fine as Toyota Motor Corp., which forked over $1.2 billion a few months ago for hiding sudden-acceleration problems. Some members of Congress have said they think criminal charges are possible.

But if money will help, GM is offering a lot of it. Feinberg said payouts will start at a million dollars for each death and that many would be substantially more, based on medical costs, lost wages and other factors.

Feinberg readily acknowledges that a check doesn’t replace a lost life. In some cases, though, GM’s compensation can significantly improve the lives of families who long ago began moving on from their tragedies, never suspecting until now that GM owed them anything. For them, Feinberg is offering a windfall out of the blue -- albeit one they’d trade in an instant to get back the life that was lost.

I’ve spoken with several families who never sued GM because they had no evidence that they should have, or because they didn’t think they could win. Some of them didn’t even know about the recall, or that it was related to their loss, until I called. I talked to a driver who was severely injured and settled with GM year ago, and who was surprised that he might be given more.

Some families paid large medical bills. Some may have gone deep into debt or even into bankruptcy as a result.

In none of those cases will a check for $2.2 million, or $4 million, or $5.1 million -- all examples that Feinberg cited as possible payouts, depending on a person’s income, age and family situation -- undo the damage caused by a poorly designed, two-inch-long plastic part that cost a few dollars to make.

“If I could turn back the clock, I would. But I can’t,” GM CEO Mary Barra told NBC’s Matt Lauer last week. “So what I want to do is make sure we create the right systems and processes and have the right people that this never happens again.”

Money and that sort of promise may not be enough for many families. But will anything?

“People say, ‘Well, what will satisfy you?’” Chansuthus told me. “I don’t know. Having my daughter back, but that can’t happen. There’s just no happy ending to this story.”

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