GM CEO admits recall tardy, won't pledge liability

DETROIT (USA TODAY) — General Motors CEO Mary Barra said on Tuesday that the automaker didn't move fast enough on the ignition switch fault that triggered the recall of 1.62 million cars worldwide and is blamed for 12 deaths in 31 crashes.

But Barra, in her first interview since the February recall, wouldn't promise that GM will accept responsibility for deaths, injuries and damage that happened before big car company went through government-supervised bankruptcy reorganization in 2009.

The bankruptcy deal freed "new GM" — formed July 10, 2009 — from product liability and other claims for incidents before that date. Old GM retained those liabilities, as well as unwanted assets to be liquidated, and now exists as a shell unlikely to be able to make good on claims from the accidents. New GM did carry with it responsibility for the products themselves, such as handling warranty claims and recalls.

GM records show the ignition switch problem first was noticed in 2001 during development of the 2001 Saturn Ion; again in 2003, after it was supposed to have been fixed; then in 2004, by a GM development engineer doing pre-production work on the then-new 2005 Chevrolet Cobalt.

"Clearly, this took too long," Barra told a dozen reporters at GM headquarters here."We will fix our process."

But she wouldn't promise to establish a victims' fund or otherwise have GM accept liability for pre-bankruptcy accidents.

"Right now, our focus is on the customers 100%" to "make sure we repair every single one of these vehicles," she said, though she promised that "after the (GM internal) investigation, we will do what's right."

NEW RECALLS: GM recalls 1.5M vehicles in 3 new actions

GM hired Tony Valukas, chairman of the law firm, Jenner & Block and former U.S. Attorney who probed the Lehman Bros. collapse, to lead that internal investigation.

Barra noted that he "has 10 years of activity to go through" to untangle how and why decisions were made that eventually led to the switch recall. "We won't sacrifice accuracy for speed," she said, "and I told him there are no sacred cows."

She said, "No one (has been) disciplined or fired at this time."

The lag between first signs of trouble with the switches and the recall has prompted ongoing investigations by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, the Department of Justice and two Congressional committees, which plan hearings late this month or early next.

Barra said "it's likely" she'll testify at those hearings, along with other GM executives.

Barra and Mark Reuss, who replaced Barra as GM's executive vice president of global product development, met with reporters to give GM's current analysis of the recall details, to explain how GM is working to prevent future delays recognizing problems and to update the time line for replacing faulty ignition switches.

The switches can unexpectedly move from "run" to "accessory," stalling the engine and cutting power to air bags and other systems. The 1.37 million cars recalled in the U.S. are the 2005-07 Chevrolet Cobalt, 2007 Pontiac G5, 2003-07 Saturn Ion, 2006-07 Chevrolet HHR, 2006-07 Pontiac Solstice and 2007 Saturn Sky.

Dealers will begin receiving replacement switches on April 7, Barra said. They're made by Delphi, which also made the faulty switches, but GM is monitoring the production closely, she said. GM has worked with Delphi to increase capacity and should have enough switches for all recalled models by October, Barra said.

Barra and Reuss both said they'll re-emphasize to dealers that they should provide free loaner or rental cars to people nervous about driving their recalled cars before they're fixed. GM is paying for the interim cars, so dealers shouldn't object, Reuss said.

Some owners have complained to GM, and to USA TODAY, as well, that they've had trouble getting the free temporary vehicles.

Barra also said GM has added dozens of phone workers to make sure owners with questions about the recall or loaner cars can get through promptly.

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