Members of a House committee spent Tuesday grilling General Motors CEO Mary Barra and a federal safety regulator on why it took a decade to issue a recall for a defect linked to the death of 13 people. America’s largest automaker has now recalled some 2.6 million vehicles as part of the ongoing crisis. On Wednesday, a Senate panel will get its go at the newly installed chief executive and National Highway Traffic Safety Administration administrator David Friedman. Here’s what you need to know about the saga so far:
1. Barra’s apology. Barra, who previously offered a stark apology on video when the scandal broke in mid-March, apologized again. “Today’s GM will do the right thing,” she said. “That begins with my sincere apologies to everyone who has been affected by this recall, especially the families and friends who lost their lives or were injured. I am deeply sorry.” Barra also met with some of the family members of individuals who died because of the defects.
2. Defective parts. During the questioning, House member Diana DeGette claimed that GM decided not to replace a faulty ignition component that would have cost 57 cents per vehicle. The reason: lack of “an acceptable business case” for doing so. (Reuters reported the cost of the part at just shy of $1.) Barra said statements in 2005 GM documents showing that the company decided it was too expensive to implement a fix were “very disturbing.” “If that’s the reason the decision was made, that is not acceptable,” Barra said. “That is not the way we do business today.”
3. Unanswered questions. Barra evaded some questions. She repeatedly dodged a line of inquiry about how the problem could have gone on unnoticed for so long, telling lawmakers GM would be able to explain more after it completed its internal investigation opened a few weeks ago by former U.S. Attorney Anton Valukas. Barra told the committee she found out about the defective ignition switch on January 31, after an executive committee made the recall decision. The slow response, she said, was “unacceptable.”
4. GM’s liability. Barra said the company has legal and moral obligations to the families of victims. But she did not specify what those are. Because of its 2009 bankruptcy, GM is shielded from having to pay accident victims for any crash that happened before it went chapter 11. (It is protected from civil cases, not criminal.) Still, Barra said GM has hired attorney Kenneth Feinberg, known for handling high-profile victim compensation cases after the 9/11 terror attacks and the BP oil spill.
5. Why regulators didn’t step in. Employees of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) raised red flags twice about airbag problems in GM vehicles, but never moved forward with a full investigation. Friedman told lawmakers the agency didn’t have all the facts. “GM had critical information that would have helped identify this defect,” he said. “Had this information been available, it’s likely NHTSA would have changed its approach to the issue.”