Transcript: Sen. Claire McCaskill’s opening statement on GM’s ignition switch recall

Partial transcript of opening remarks by Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Missouri) on “Examining the GM Recall and NHTSA’s Defect Investigation Process”. The U.S. Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation’s Subcommittee on Consumer Protection, Product Safety, and Insurance’s hearing was held on April 2, 2014:

…It was a rainy night. On March 10, 2010, Brooke Melton, who was 29-years-old and a pediatric nurse, was driving her 2005 Chevy Cobalt to meet her boyfriend for her birthday dinner outside of Atlanta.

As she was driving on the highway, her car suddenly lost power. Unable to control the vehicle, it hydroplaned, crossed the center line, and slammed into another vehicle at 58 miles per hour.

Her car ended up in a creek. The airbag never deployed.

Ken and Beth Melton, her parents, rushed to the hospital but she was dead when they arrived.

In their nightmare of grief, they hired a lawyer – a trial lawyer. They asked him to help them understand what had happened and, if possible, hold whoever was responsible accountable. And he went to work, spending his own resources to get to the bottom of what happened to Brooke on that rainy night in Georgia when she was on her way to celebrate her birthday.

He hired an engineer to help him. Together, Mr. Cooper, the lawyer, and Mr. Hood, an engineer, began to identify a defect that someone at General Motors had discovered years before.

There was a problem with the ignitions switch in Chevy Cobalts. It could easily be bumped or brushed or pulled from “on” to “accessory” or “off”, powering down the car, disabling the power steering, disabling the power brakes, and preventing the airbags from deploying.

After two years of fighting General Motors for documents and a timeline of events, at a deposition in April of last year, Mr. Cooper finally confronted General Motors with the facts: Someone at General Motors had switched out the unsafe ignition switches in several car models and covered it up by using the same part number for the new switch.

The simple work of the engineer hired by the trial lawyer representing the Meltons had discovered the defective part and its replacement with the same number.

And when Mr. Cooper confronted General Motors Mr. Ray DeGiorgio, their lead switch engineer, with the evidence of the part switch, he lied. He said he didn’t know anything about it.

Documents – “General Motors Commodity Validation Sign-off” – signed on April of 2006 bear the signature of, in fact, Ray DeGiorgio, spelling out in the document – “also new detent plunger was implemented to increase torque force in the switch.” With the box checked “resubmission doing engineering changes”.

Further, it is now clear that GM knew the faulty switch in 2004, knew the airbags were not deploying in 2005, and in late 2005 knew someone had died.

We don’t know how many people crashed because of this cover-up. We do know that many died, including Ms. Melton, and at least one of my constituents – a Missouri woman who died in a crash in 2009 in the suburb surrounding St. Louis.

So there is great work done by a trial lawyer and an engineer he hired in exposing a serious safety issue with a product. Work that should have been done by GM and secondly by federal regulators.

And then there’s the federal regulator’s failure to spot a trend even though the TREAD Act was passed specifically to give this regulatory agency the information it needed to catch exactly this type of problem.

And a culture of cover-up that allowed an engineer at General Motors to lie under oath. Repeatedly lied under oath.

It might have been the old GM that started sweeping this defect 10 years ago. But even under the new GM banner, the company waited 9 months to take action after being confronted with specific evidence of this egregious violation of public trust.

Thousands of my constituents in the St. Louis and Kansas City areas go to work for General Motors everyday, building some of the finest cars on the road. I am proud of them and I am proud of their work. This is not their failure.

They and the American public were failed by a corporate culture that chose to conceal rather than disclose and by a safety regulator that failed to act.

With this hearing, I intend to identify potential problems in our auto safety system and work with Chairman Rockefeller and Ranking Members Thune and Heller and the other members of this committee to rectify these problems so that this tragedy hopefully is never repeated again.

It’s time that we finally get this right so it doesn’t take an enterprising trial lawyer and an engineer that he hired to bring to light what NHTSA should have known long ago and what General Motors should have fixed long before Ken and Beth Melton lost their daughter Brooke.

Our job today is to learn as much as possible about the failures of General Motors and the regulators to keep unsuspecting daughters, fathers, wives, and sons safe.

Thank you, Ms. Barra. I know when I go back and review this hearing, I will say to myself “You got too excited and you went too hard.” But the passion is real on this side of the table. So to the extent that this has been a rough day for you, it is coming from the right place. It is coming from a deep commitment that many of us have to these families and to automobile safety in this great country of ours.

You head a great company, and you’ve got an enormous responsibility to get this right. We appreciate you being here. And I can’t promise that the next time you’re here I will not get as aggressive as I have today. But I do think it’s important that we point out the many problems that these facts present to you and to your company and to the legacy of General Motors going forward.

This is an incredibly important moment in your corporate history and you are in charge, and you’ve got to make some very tough decisions going forward. And we will be monitoring all of those decisions and we’ll look forward to having you back here to testify when you can go into the details of the investigation.

I would ask that you make sure your investigator look at a pattern of legal counsel in your corporation. How are they cooperating with litigation? Why are they requiring confidential settlements? I think that is something that we need to understand because it is in fact of those confidential settlements that many of these problems do not get the light of air that they should. And I’m just glad that in this instance Mr. Cooper and his engineer Mr. Hood did what they did because they performed the valuable service to this country that should have been performed by your company and by federal regulators.

Thank you very much for being here.

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