Six former General Motors lawyers who were dismissed due to their roles in the automaker’s ignition switch debacle will keep their Michigan law licenses.
According to the Wall Street Journal, Tennessee native Jay Gass filed requests in February and March with the Michigan Attorney Grievance Commission to investigate the lawyers. Gass received over $1 million in victim compensation from GM following the death of his daughter in 2014, when her 2006 Saturn Ion equipped with a defective ignition switch was involved in an accident.
Citing commission documents, The Journal reports that Gass’ requests argue that GM’s lawyers “failed to take the extra step.” But the commission denied his requests, stating that the matter was already resolved in court.
In addition, the commission also came out in support of the lawyers’ decisions to not disclose confidential GM information, which was the lawyers’ client at the time. Most U.S. states, including Michigan, do not require lawyers to break confidentiality agreements with clients by disclosing potential consumer safety risks.
“The tragedies that resulted from various individuals employed by General Motors are not subject to review by this agency,” one staffer from the commission replied to Gass in a letter, as reported by the WSJ.
GM’s ignition switches were defective in that they could slip from “engine on” to “accessory” while the vehicle was in motion, thereby shutting off the engine and cutting off power to key vehicle components such as the airbags and power steering system. The circumstance made the vehicle more difficult to steer and also disabled the deployment of airbags in an accident. Believed to have been more prevalent when the vehicle key was attached to a hefty key chain, such as one with many keys, the flaw has been linked to 124 deaths and 275 injuries.
A 2015 report conducted by Anton Valukas and commissioned by GM, found that General Motors lawyers settled cases related to the faulty ignition switches, but did not alert executives for years. Valukas concluded that there wasn’t an intentional cover-up by GM employees, instead attributing the GM’s slow response to incompetence. The automaker stated that some employees were aware of the defect for years before a massive 2014 recall of 2.36 million vehicles.
While no individuals or GM employees have been charged as a result of the controversy, GM’s penalties for the defect and slow action in recalling affected vehicles consist of roughly $2 billion in settlements with the U.S. Justice Department, consumers, and shareholders. The automaker still faces a trial and other probes.
In a statement to Auto News, GM said that its legal team has undergone “profound changes” since 2014. In addition, former GM General Counsel Michael Millikin explained to a U.S. Senate subcommittee in 2014 that the automaker’s policy has been changed in a way that requires the firm’s lawyers to inform him before proceeding with a settlement or trial of a case that involves “a fatality or serious bodily injury.”
What’s more, GM is currently seeking a provision in settlement agreements that allows safety information to be disclosed to U.S. regulators regardless of potential confidentiality restrictions.