GM's program to compensate victims of accidents that involved defective ignition switches has approved claims for 19 deaths, at least six more fatalities than GM has officially linked to the faulty part.
The approved claims are now awaiting a decision on payment amounts. They are among 125 death claims submitted as of Sept. 12 to the GM compensation program, which is being overseen by attorney and victim-compensation expert Kenneth Feinberg. Those numbers could grow as more claims come in between now and Dec. 31.
Citing privacy concerns, Camille Biros, the deputy administrator of the program, declined to say whether the 19 eligible death claims included any of the 13 fatalities that GM has officially linked to the defective switches used in some 2.6 million Chevrolet Cobalts, Saturn Ions and other small cars that were recalled in February.
Biros said no claims have been rejected thus far, though the program is “getting close to that point.”
The program has also accepted four claims of catastrophic injuries such as quadriplegia, paraplegia, double amputation, permanent brain damage or pervasive burns sustained in crashes. Eight claims for injuries that required hospitalization or outpatient medical treatment within 48 hours of crashes have also been accepted.
“Now it’s just a question of determining the valuation” of those accepted claims, Biros said.
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A total of 445 claims were submitted to the program as of Sept. 12, including the 125 death claims, plus 58 claims of catastrophic injuries and 262 claims of injuries requiring hospitalization. The program began accepting claims on Aug. 1 and will continue through the end of the year.
The remaining claims are either under review or awaiting further documentation.
“We have previously said that Ken Feinberg and his team will independently determine the final number of eligible individuals, so we accept their determinations for the compensation program,” said GM spokesman Dave Roman. “What is most important is that we are doing the right thing for those who lost loved ones and for those who suffered physical injury.”
Biros said the program is relatively far along in processing the claims received thus far, but the process involves a lot of back and forth with claimants or their attorneys. It’s rare that a claim is received with all the documentation needed to complete a review, Biros said.
“It’s a constant process where we work with them to make sure we get what we need,” she said.
Two lawyers who have submitted a significant number of claims said they haven’t yet received any word from Feinberg about whether they have been approved. Lance Cooper, the Georgia lawyer whose work on a wrongful death case helped bring the defect to light, said his office alone knows of more deaths that it believes are connected to the recall than the 13 that GM has officially linked to it.
“We expect the number to be significantly higher than what GM has acknowledged,” Cooper said. “A few that we submitted were so obvious.”
Cooper’s firm has submitted 20 claims so far, more than half of which involve deaths. He has not filed a claim for Brooke Melton, a 29-year-old nurse who died in 2010 and whose parents settled with GM for $5 million last year. Melton’s parents are now suing GM again, alleging it committed fraud by covering up the defect.
Cooper said gathering the information necessary to file a claim was difficult in some of the cases but that he thinks they ultimately were able to provide the documentation that Feinberg required.
“In any cases with a lack of complete evidence, it really should operate to the detriment of GM, because if they had disclosed this early, all of that evidence would be available,” Cooper said. “In some cases, the vehicle is gone so there’s no vehicle or black-box data. It’s not like an ordinary product liability case where you have all the evidence or the vehicle itself.”
GM has estimated that it will pay between $400 million and $600 million to the accident victims through the Feinberg program, though there is no cap to the total cost or the number of claims to be accepted.
‘Man of his word’
Texas lawyer Bob Hilliard said his firm submitted 11 of the 19 approved death claims. It has 19 more death claims pending, as well as a number of injury claims.
At least four of the approved claims are for victims that were among the 13 that GM linked to the defect, Hilliard said. For those claims, he said the process did not require significant work beyond showing Feinberg that GM considered them to be defect-related.
Hilliard said Feinberg approved claims on behalf of Natasha Weigel and Amy Rademaker, two Wisconsin teens killed in a 2006 crash. Rademaker was one of GM’s 13 listed victims, but Weigel was not, because she was sitting in the back seat where there was no airbag to malfunction.
Feinberg adopted a more liberal set of criteria than GM, one that includes all occupants of a defective vehicle, as well as any pedestrians or occupants of another vehicle involved in a crash caused by the defect. That is one reason he has already recognized more deaths than GM.
Hilliard said Feinberg also approved a claim submitted for Sarah Trautwein, who died in 2009 when her Chevrolet Cobalt hit a tree in the median of Interstate 95 in South Carolina. It’s unclear why GM did not believe that accident to be related to the car’s ignition switch.
Although Hilliard is still waiting for Feinberg to attach a payment amount to all of the approved claims, he is pleased with how the process has worked so far. Many families and lawyers were initially concerned that GM would follow through on its promise to let Feinberg independently administer the program.
“Ken has really been a man of his word to date,” Hilliard said. “I’m convinced now he does have real autonomy. The real proof is going to be in what is awarded, but to date, everything has gone as I have hoped it to go.”
Feinberg, speaking on CNBC this morning, said he was still in the early stages of reviewing many claims. “Clearly the number will go up,” he said.
Feinberg said he had met with the families of about a dozen victims, though the meetings were not to discuss money as much as they were about venting. “They want to vent about life’s unfairness,” he said.
Nick Bunkley contributed to this report.