13 August 2014

The GM switch confusion

In an August 6 post, “The GM ignition switch decision,” I noted that a car should remain controllable when power is lost, so that GM’s defective switch didn’t cause any accidents, though it made them much worse by disabling the air bag system. I also noted that the press and the public seemed confused on the point, citing a New York Times article.

The GM engineers who initially investigated the defective switch believed that a car would remain controllable after the engine shut off, and I’m unaware that anyone has seriously challenged that conclusion. (My auto mechanic son tells me that there should be enough remaining boost in the power brakes to bring the car to a stop without undue effort.) All the cases GM investigated involved serious crashes in which an airbag failed to deploy.

But the press’s confusion continues: The Times for August 11, reporting on a hearing involving lawyers representing nearly 1,000 plaintiffs suing GM over the switch, stated that “The ignition switches, when jostled, can shut off the engine, cutting power steering and brakes and potentially causing drivers to lose control. The problem also can disable air bags.” Again the defective ignition switch is cited as causing the crashes, with the real problem—the disabled airbag system—seemingly a secondary concern.

It might seem a niggling distinction: GM is culpable either way you think. But from that confusion a thousand plaintiffs rise. It’s doubtful that many of these suits have any merit. That would require an accident where an airbag failed to deploy. (If the airbag deployed, the ignition switch must have been in the RUN position throughout and couldn’t have caused the accident.) If airbags were truly failing to deploy in their thousands, surely someone would have noticed early on; the airbag failures that GM knew about were taken quite seriously.

What seems to be happening is the usual feeding frenzy among personal injury lawyers, always eager to take advantage of grieving families who, understandably, want to blame someone else for deaths or serious injuries to loved ones. Even if the suits are without merit, they have settlement value, especially when fueled by public anger. It’s a shame that the press, through mere incompetence, is assisting this sorry spectacle.


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