A U.S. Senator wants to see General Motors’ general counsel fired in response to the company’s handling of ignition system defects.
Michael Millikin was the latest GM executive that felt the wrath of Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) and other senators this week, though he still has the support of GM CEO Mary Barra.
McCaskill blasted him in statements made during a Senate hearing. “In the aftermath of this report, how in the world did Michael Millikin keep his job? I do not understand how the general counsel for a litigation department that had this massive failure of responsibility, how he would be allowed to continue in that important leadership role in this company,” McCaskill said during a commerce subcommittee on consumer protection hearing held on July 17. “The failure of this legal department is stunning.”
The internal report was undertaken for GM by Anton Valukas, a former U.S. Attorney.
Millikin has kept his job. News reports claim several GM lawyers were fired by the company in recent months, though there are some questions whether some left voluntarily.
McCaskill also told Millikin during the hearing. “I don’t get how you and Lucy Clark Dougherty [general counsel for North America] still have your jobs. This is either gross negligence or gross incompetence on the part of a lawyer.”
But Barra defended Millikin and praised his “integrity.” She admitted to the Senate “very senior lawyers” at GM “had this information and didn’t bring it forward” to top levels, and they “are no longer with the company.”
At least 13 deaths were associated with the defects in the cars, but Millikin said he did not know of the ignition system problems until February 2014. “Had I learned about it earlier, I would have taken action earlier,” he told Senators during the hearing.
GM has also set records this year for the number of overall vehicles recalled for safety concerns. At last count, GM has recalled more than 28 million vehicles in North America during the current year.
In an opening statement at the hearing, McCaskill said, “it is clear that the culture of lawyering-up and whack-a-mole to minimize liability killed innocent customers of GM.”
In his testimony, Millikin said, “I know we as a company, and I personally, have a responsibility to make sure this never happens again.”
“The investigation conducted by Anton Valukas revealed the failures behind the ignition switch recall, including those of the Legal Staff,” he added. “As general counsel, I am ultimately responsible for the legal affairs of the company.”
Millikin has worked for GM for 37 years, and prior to that worked as an Assistant United States Attorney.
“We had lawyers at GM who didn’t do their jobs; didn’t do what was expected of them. Those lawyers are no longer with the company,” he continued in the statement.
GM lawyers allegedly did not let Millikin know about fatal accidents related to the defective ignition switch.
“I have taken, and will continue to take steps to make sure something like this never happens again,” Millikin told the Senators.
He said the recommendations in the Valukas report will be implemented to improve the company’s legal staff.
Before, GM lawyers could settle cases, involving $5 million or less, on their own. But now a settlement or trial of a case involving a fatality or serious injury needs to come to Millikin “for review, with a focus on any open engineering issues.”
In addition, the legal staff is now sharing more information and “emerging trends.” A senior attorney will be the chief legal advisor to Jeff Boyer, vice president of Global Vehicle Safety, as well. Also, Quinn Emanuel Urquhart & Sullivan will review the actions of GM’s legal department.
The company has 85 in-house lawyers, and 140 lawyers working in foreign nations, GM said in a blog post.
Meanwhile, as a result of the recalls and defects, GM may be forced to pay billions of dollars in fines, charges and settlement funds, according to recent news reports.