GM CEO Mary Barra: “People Were Hurt And Died In Our Cars”

Following this morning’s news that General Motors had reached a $900 million deal with the Department of Justice to settle criminal charges tied to a long-delayed ignition recall that killed more than 100 people, the car maker’s CEO Mary Barra spoke to her employees openly about the culture of incompetence that brought the company to this place.

“People were hurt and people died in our cars,” said Barra, a longtime GM vet who ascended to the CEO spot in early 2014, only weeks before GM announced the ignition recall that should have happened a decade earlier. “That’s why we are here today.”

Some at GM knew of the defective ignition switches — which could be inadvertently turned off by a bump from a knee or a heavy keychain, leaving the airbags without power and making the car more difficult to control — before they were ever put into the Chevy Cobalts, Saturn Ions and other vehicles.

As accidents piled up and people died because their cars turned off and the airbags failed to inflate, both GM and federal regulators did nothing to issue a recall. Quietly, GM engineers worked with the switch’s vendor to tweak the design to prevent the accidental shutoff.

But since no recall occurred, only new vehicles received the safer ignition switches while older models still presented a danger to drivers and others on the road. Making matters worse, the revised switch had the exact same part number as the defective one, so dealerships and other garages that stocked GM parts commingled old and new switches.

“We didn’t do our job and as part of our apology to the victims we promise to take responsibility for our actions,” said Barra, who said the company is putting the tragedy in the rearview mirror, “but we will always see it back there.”

She says that GM is now a “fundamentally different company” now and that, where previous leadership appeared to encourage workers to sweep problems under the rug, “We are seriously encouraging employees to raise issues.”

In addition to the $900 million DOJ settlement, which is smaller than the $1.2 billion deferred prosecution deal the government made with Toyota over its sudden unintended acceleration issue, Barra says that the company’s independent victim compensation fund is paying out around $600 million to people who were seriously injured and the survivors of victims who died because of ignition switch failures.

The compensation fund received thousands of applications and ultimately made financial offers related to 257 injuries and 124 fatalities — that’s nearly 10 times the number of deaths GM would admit to when it first issued the recall in 2014.

Barra has maintained that no senior level executives at the company were ever made aware of the problem with the switch, but an e-mail turned up as part of a federal grand jury investigation into the recall shows that at least one current GM vice president was told about the issue in 2005.

According to Barra, there will be no further firings tied to the ignition defect, calling last year’s dismissal of a handful of employees as “comprehensive.”

[via Detroit News]

Want more consumer news? Visit our parent organization, Consumer Reports, for the latest on scams, recalls, and other consumer issues.