When a car malfunctions because of negligent maintenance practices on the part of the owner — such as holding off on the replacement of brakes that are clearly starting to fail — and causes an accident, victims can hold the negligent vehicle owner responsible. However, when vehicle malfunctions are due to flaws in vehicle design or construction, injury victims can take legal action against the auto manufacturer or other liable parties.
Auto manufacturers frequently recall vehicles to correct relatively minor, non-critical flaws. Unfortunately, this was not the case when, in February 2014, General Motors (GM) recalled well over a million vehicles. The recall pertains to faulty ignition switches that can respond to heavy key rings by moving out of the run position, shutting off the engine and electrical power. This issue has resulted in 31 crashes thus far and 13 fatalities, which may be connected to failing air bags that disengage when the vehicle loses power.
The chronology behind the problems explains why the National Highway Traffic Administration (NHTSA) is investigating GM and may issue heavy fines of $35 million or more:
As early as 2004, a GM engineer experienced the problem during a test drive.
In 2005 and 2006, GM issued service bulletins to inform dealers of how to fix the problem with a key insert (which were only supplied to 474 car owners) and warn customers to avoid using heavy key rings.
Although GM approved a redesign plan for the ignition switch, the plan was canceled prior to implementation.
During 2007, GM became aware of 10 front-end crashes involving one model of the now-recalled vehicles in which the air bags did not inflate.
Also in 2007, GM knew of at least one fatal crash.
Product manufacturers owe their customers a reasonable degree of safety, and actions by the NHTSA certainly do not preclude victims from pursuing claims for their injuries or for the loss of a loved one.