Engineers at General Motors knew nearly five years ago about a dangerous and faulty ignition switch, the New York Times reports Tuesday in a story by Hilary Stout, Bill Vlasic, Danielle Ivory and Rebecca R. Ruiz.
At a meeting on May 15, 2009, they learned that data in the black boxes of Chevrolet Cobalts confirmed a potentially fatal defect existed in hundreds of thousands of cars.
But in the months and years that followed, as a trove of internal documents and studies mounted, G.M. told the families of accident victims and other customers that it did not have enough evidence of any defect in their cars, interviews, letters and legal documents show. Last month, G.M. recalled 1.6 million Cobalts and other small cars, saying that if the switch was bumped or weighed down it could shut off the engine’s power and disable air bags.
In one case, G.M. threatened to come after the family of an accident victim for reimbursement of legal fees if the family did not withdraw its lawsuit. In another instance, it dismissed a family with a terse, formulaic letter, saying there was no basis for claims.
Since the engineers’ meeting in May 2009, at least 23 fatal crashes have involved the recalled models, resulting in 26 deaths. G.M. reported the accidents to the government under a system called Early Warning Reporting, which requires automakers to disclose claims they receive blaming vehicle defects for serious injuries or deaths.
A New York Times review of 19 of those accidents — where victims were identified through interviews with survivors, family members, lawyers and law enforcement officials — found that G.M. pushed back against families in at least two of the accidents, and reached settlements that required the victims to keep the discussions confidential.