General Motors' Faulty Ignitions Could've Been Fixed For 57 Cents Before Anyone Died, So Why Weren't They?

Yikes. It's been a terrible few weeks for General Motors, which has recalled more than a million cars in the wake of a scandal about its faulty ignitions, linked to at least 13 deaths. The poorly-made and defective ignition switches could have been fixed for 57 cents apiece, but inexplicably GM — which had been looking into the problems for over a decade — wasn't revving up to recommend a recall until January of this year.

Which is just when its new CEO, Mary T. Barra, was taking over. She's now at the center of a House of Representatives inquiry into the recalls and deaths. While testifying before a House subcommittee on Wednesday, in a room filled with parents holding pictures of their children who had died when cars turned off while they were driving, Barra apologized.

I cannot tell you why it took years for a safety defect to be announced in that program, but I can tell you that we will find out. I am deeply sorry.

When the cars turned off, their steering and airbags turned off, too. In 2006, GM quietly started replacing the switches with a new part that worked better. In 2007 and 2010, federal regulators decided not to look into problems with the ignition switches, even though dozens of complaints had been filed about them.

On Wednesday Barra, who faced a flurry of intense and pointed questions at today's hearing, said the company had hired a lawyer specializing in compensation for disaster victims' families. Because of a 2009 bankruptcy agreement, GM isn't legally responsible for accidents prior to the bankruptcy, which has spurred outrage. But now Barra's saying the company may compensate the families anyway.

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The lawyer GM hired, Kenneth Feinberg, is the "pay czar" who oversaw payouts in the wake of September 11, the Boston bombings, Sandy Hook, and other tragedies. His job, basically, is to figure out how much money a life is worth. But despite hiring Feinberg, Barra didn't fully commit to repaying the victims' families, saying only that the company "has civic and legal responsibilities, and we are thinking through exactly what those responsibilities are."

The company has recalled more than seven million cars since January for faulty ignitions and other issues at a cost of $750 million.