WASHINGTON -- General Motors has spent the past several months digging through its file cabinets and hard drives for 15 years' worth of records relating to its faulty ignition switch.
Now the burden is on accident victims and their survivors and lawyers to do their own detective work. And the trail of clues is going cold.
The victim compensation program that attorney Kenneth Feinberg outlined last week requires claimants to provide evidence that the defective switch played a role in the accident, such as the wreckage of a car, black-box data, service records or a police report.
But many of the crashes tied to the faulty ignition switch happened so long ago that those crucial records will have been lost or destroyed, meaning that potential claimants could be stymied in their effort to seek compensation -- and that the true scope and toll of the ignition mess may never be known.
"Here's the challenge," Feinberg told reporters here last week. "Unlike the 9/11 fund or the BP oil spill fund" -- which he also administered -- "many of these accidents occurred years ago. A decade ago."
This is yet another consequence of GM's long delay in recalling the switch used in small cars such as the Chevrolet Cobalt and Saturn Ion, which could easily be bumped out of the run position, cutting power to the airbags.
And it will present Feinberg with tough choices that will define the legacy of this case for GM by determining how much the fund costs, how long litigation lasts, how the company is treated by Congress and how many deaths and injuries are uncovered.
GM has linked 13 deaths to the defective ignition switches, as Automotive News reported in March. Victims' advocates say the final death toll could be in the hundreds.
The "official" tally that's etched into history books will emerge from a report that Feinberg said he will release once he finishes paying claims from GM's compensation fund.
But thanks to faded evidence, said Clarence Ditlow, executive director of the Center for Auto Safety, "the true death toll will never be known."
Feinberg said he consulted members of Congress, plaintiffs' lawyers and auto safety advocates in designing his program, and they sent him a clear message.
Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., told reporters last week: "The benefit of the doubt should be given to victims. The presumption should be in their favor."
Feinberg told reporters that his team will help claimants find the documents to make their case. But what if the proof doesn't exist anymore?
For example, police have told Automotive News that records of two fatal crashes -- one from 2004 that GM has linked to the ignition switch recall and one from 2003 that may be linked -- were destroyed under department policy because of the length of time that had passed.