At least 125 people may have been killed in crashes related to defective ignition switches in General Motors cars, according to the first batch of claims to a victims’ compensation fund.
Kenneth Feinberg, the lawyer hired by GM to determine which requests are valid, said families in 19 of those cases will get a payout, while the remaining cases are still being vetted. If the tally holds up, the number of deaths linked to the defect by Feinberg’s fund would be almost 10 times what GM had determined.
“GM was asking its engineers, ‘Can you definitively say ignition switch defects caused the accident?’ ,” Feinberg said in a Bloomberg Television interview Monday. “Our standard, as you know, is much more liberal. It’s easier to apply. It’s a legal standard: ‘Was the ignition switch the proximate cause, a substantial likelihood as the cause of the accident?’ ”
Feinberg said he expects the fatality tally to increase as more claims come in, though he wouldn’t give an estimate as to how high. He also declined to speculate how much GM could pay out. The automaker, the largest in the United States, said in July it was setting aside $400 million to $600 million to pay victims.
“We’re just now beginning to make the dollar calculations,” Feinberg said. “We’ll see whether claimant, the victim, or his or her family will accept the money. It’s a little early to be putting dollar signs next to eligible claimants. We’ll know more about that in the next four to six weeks.”
GM will abide by whatever determinations Feinberg makes, said Dave Roman, a spokesman for the Detroit-based automaker.
“Ken Feinberg and his team will independently determine the final number of eligible individuals,” Roman said. “What is most important is that we are doing the right thing for those who lost loved ones and for those who suffered physical injury.”
Figures released Monday show 445 claims to the compensation fund have been made so far, including 58 involving serious injury and 262 involving hospitalization. Twelve of those injury claims have been ruled valid.
GM’s ignition-switch recall began in February and expanded to about 2.6 million cars, including the Chevrolet Cobalt and Saturn Ion. GM has said 13 people were killed in crashes that it linked to a flawed ignition switch, which can be inadvertently shut off when jarred, cutting power to the engine and deactivating air bags.
GM’s official tally includes only the drivers, Feinberg said.
The compensation fund uses a broader legal definition that makes more people eligible for payment, including the occupants of other vehicles and pedestrians if they were struck by a car with a defective ignition switch, he said.
The first claims were accepted Aug. 1, and Feinberg will take claims through the end of the year. The more clear-cut claims will be processed within 90 days, Feinberg said. It will take 180 days to work through more complicated cases.
Feinberg has administered victims’ compensation funds before, including payouts related to the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, the Boston Marathon bombing and the BP oil spill.
The number of claims coming in for GM is “relatively modest,” Feinberg said, compared with other victims’ funds. That may be partly due to some of the crashes having happened almost a decade ago, he said. Past funds he managed were set up only a few months after the disaster.
He said it will take families more time to gather all their records for the GM claims, including police reports and old repair records. There may not be a car or black-box data, so many of the cases are circumstantial.
Another obstacle for paying claims is agreement among family members about who should receive the money, Feinberg said. Families with valid claims who can’t agree on how to divide the funds will end up in court, he said.
An internal investigation showed that the company for at least a decade failed to promptly resolve mounting complaints from consumers, dealers and others about abnormal crashes in the Cobalt and Ion and later replaced the faulty ignition switch without alerting the public or changing the part number as required.
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration also has been under scrutiny for missing signs of the broader ignition-switch failures and passing on opening a formal defect investigation in 2007 and again in 2010. NHTSA Acting Administrator David Friedman is scheduled to appear before a Senate subcommittee hearing this week.