The car crash that killed Gene Erickson caught the attention of federal regulators. Why did the Saturn Ion he was travelling in, along a rural Texas road, suddenly swerve into a tree? Why did the air bags fail? General Motors told federal authorities that it could not provide answers.
But only a month earlier, a GM engineer had concluded in an internal evaluation that the Ion had most likely lost power, disabling its air bags, according to a subsequent internal investigation commissioned by GM.
Now, GM’s response, as well as its replies to queries in other crashes obtained by The New York Times from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, casts doubt on how forthright the automaker was with regulators over a defective ignition switch that GM has linked to at least 13 deaths over the last decade.
They provide details for the first time on the issue at the heart of a criminal investigation by the Justice Department: Whether GM, in its interaction with safety regulators, obscured a deadly defect that would also injure perhaps hundreds of people.
The company repeatedly found a way not to answer the simple question from regulators of what led to a crash. In at least three cases of fatal crashes, including the accident that killed Erickson, GM said that it had not assessed the cause. In another fatal crash, GM said that attorney-client privilege may have prevented it from answering. And in other cases, the automaker was more blunt, writing, “GM opts not to respond.”
The responses came even though GM had for years been aware of sudden power loss in the models involved in the accidents. The responses are found in documents known as “death inquiries”, which The Times obtained through the Freedom of Information Act. In those inquiries, regulators ask automakers to explain the circumstances surrounding a crash to help identify potential defects in cars.
On Thursday, the head of GM’s legal department, Michael Millikin, is expected to face intense scrutiny before lawmakers at a Senate hearing. He is scheduled to testify along with, among others, Mary Barra, the chief executive, who faced a harsh grilling before the same panel in April.
The Times asked the safety agency for death inquiries related to fatal crashes in older Chevrolet Cobalts and Saturn Ions, which are among the 2.6 million cars with defective ignition switches that GM has recalled since February. Of the 13 deaths linked to the defect,