Consumer Law

GM's legal department is reportedly scrutinized in internal probe

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General Motors is examining its own legal department in an internal inquiry of how the automaker handled reports of the defective ignition switch, according to a published report.

The New York Times has the story, based on two people with knowledge of the inquiry and internal documents. Delays in responding to the defect resulted in a $35 million civil penalty, announced on Friday.

GM has said a few midlevel employees handled work on the defective switches. “But a review of internal documents, emails and interviews paint a different picture,” the Times says, “showing that high-ranking officials, particularly in GM’s legal department, led by the general counsel Michael P. Millikin, acted with increasing urgency in the last 12 months to grapple with the spreading impact of the ignition problem.”

According to the story, the threat of depositions led senior officials to boost efforts to fix the problem. Yet GM lawyers sought to keeps its actions undisclosed with confidential settlements in five fatal accident cases, according to the story.

The company settled one case before a scheduled deposition in September with a top GM engineer who had led an investigation into the ignition switch, the story says. The suit was filed by the family of Brooke Melton, a Georgia woman who died in a Chevrolet Cobalt crash in 2010. GM began the recall after the settlement was finalized.

Records show the ignition switch in small GM cars was “drastically improved” in 2006, even though there was no safety recall for cars with the old, faulty switch, the story says. GM’s legal department had been asked to provide documents about the change, but it had not done so by last July, the story says. That month, an investigator for the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration sent GM a letter alleging the company was slow to act on safety issues.

GM has hired Jenner & Block chairman Anton Valukas to help lead the internal investigation.

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