General Motors Co. has named general counsel Michael Millikin and outside counsel Anton Valukas of Jenner & Block to cohead an internal investigation into the company’s handling of complaints related to sudden vehicle shutdowns that led to at least 13 deaths.
GM last week issued a recall [PDF] on 1.6 million cars to check for faulty ignition switches after more than 10 years of consumer complaints that engines and power systems would suddenly shut down—a bug that also disabled air bags.
Company spokesman Alan Adler confirmed the Millikin-Valukas probe Monday, adding that attorneys from King & Spalding would join Jenner lawyers in the probe.
Valukas, a former U.S. attorney in Chicago, is Jenner’s chairman, and the law firm has a long-standing relationship with GM. Millikin’s predecessor as GC, Robert Osborne, came from Jenner and returned there in 2009 after three years of guiding GM through legal issues, including its bankruptcy. Osborne remains of counsel in Jenner’s Washington, D.C., office.
That D.C. connection could come in handy as the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) is also evaluating “the timing of GM’s defect decisionmaking and reporting of the safety defect to NHTSA,” according to a 27-page special order issued March 4.
GM’s response to the order is due by April 3, which doesn’t give Millikin, who has been part of GM’s legal department since 1977, and Valukas much time to investigate beyond work already done for the recall.
But the NHTSA also faces questions on its reaction to complaints.
A New York Times article on Sunday said the agency “received an average of two complaints a month about potentially dangerous shutdowns, but it repeatedly responded that there was not enough evidence of a problem to warrant a safety investigation.” The first complaint came in 2003, it said.
The Times story concluded that “regulators appear to have overlooked disturbing complaints of engine shutdowns.”
In a statement the NHTSA told CorpCounsel.com: “Safety is our top priority. … NHTSA uses a variety of tools to evaluate the more than 40,000 complaints it receives each year, including special crash investigations, searches for similar complaints and comparisons to other vehicles. In this case, the data available to NHTSA at the time did not contain sufficient evidence of a possible safety defect trend that would warrant the agency opening a formal investigation.”
Staff members of the House Energy and Commerce Committee were scheduled to meet with representatives of NHTSA Monday to discuss the agency’s handling of the complaints, according to the Times.