Mark Robinson. (Photo: AP/Jae C. Hong.)
Plaintiffs lawyers who have sued General Motors Co. over its ignition switch recalls on Thursday criticized the automaker’s internal investigative report as biased and incomplete.
The 315-page report, released on Thursday, concluded that GM failed to identify ignition switch defects—which have been linked to 13 deaths—due to incompetence among its employees, not a cover-up by senior executives. GM fired 15 employees and disciplined five others.
“The ignition switch issue was touched by numerous parties at GM—engineers, investigators, lawyers—but nobody raised the problem to the highest levels of the company,” said CEO Mary Barra, who described the report as “extremely thorough, brutally tough and deeply troubling.”
The report, conducted by former U.S. Attorney Anton Valukas, chairman of Jenner & Block, is GM’s explanation as to why it recalled 2.6 million vehicles for ignition switch problems this year. Documents that GM submitted to Congress indicate the company knew about the defects for the past decade.
Mark Robinson, senior partner of Robinson, Calcagnie, Robinson Shapiro Davis Inc. in Newport Beach, Calif., said the Valukas report, some of which is redacted, is just a start.
“The report today makes us think there’s a lot more questions that we want answered,” he said. “There are a lot of apologies in here, a lot of admissions of wrongdoing, and I commend GM for that, making this public. On the other hand, these admissions are shocking. It makes me wonder what more we’re going to get out of these documents.”
For instance, Robinson said, the report concluded that Barra and GM general counsel Mike Milliken didn’t know about the ignition switch problems until after GM made the decision to institute this year’s recalls. But senior attorney Bill Kemp, who the report said is “widely regarded as GM’s most knowledgeable, experienced, and trusted safety lawyer,” could not explain to GM’s investigators why he failed to tell Milliken about known ignition switch problems until earlier this year.
“The highest, most knowledgeable product liability lawyer at GM knew. As far as I’m concerned, GM knew,” Robinson said. “Whether he told Milliken or not … doesn’t really matter. It might be a deficiency in the way they’re running the office, but clearly the most knowledgeable product liability lawyer at GM knew.”
Robinson and other plaintiffs lawyers also questioned the independence of the report itself.
Valukas of Jenner spearheaded the investigation with the assistance of King & Spalding—firms that have long served as outside counsel to GM. Jenner & Block’s previous work for GM includes its $15.8 billion initial public offering in 2010.
“Let’s not lose sight of the fact that GM commissioned and paid for the report, and its primary author is an attorney who represents GM,” Steve Berman, managing partner of Seattle’s Hagens Berman Sobol Shapiro, said in a written statement Thursday.
With more than 60 lawsuits filed against GM, plaintiffs lawyers said they have more faith that their own cases will tell the entire story, even though discovery has been stayed pending resolution of issues related to GM’s 2009 bankruptcy.
Lance Cooper, founding partner of The Cooper Firm in Marietta, Ga., whose case on behalf of the parents of Brooke Melton has been credited for uncovering the ignition switch defects, said in a statement on Thursday that documents and the testimonies of employees showed that GM chose not to fix the ignition switch defects for cost reasons.
“That is why it is critical that the civil cases move forward so that the American public may learn the whole truth, not just the truth GM chooses to disclose,” Cooper said.
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