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A closer look at the human costs of GM's recall scandal

Reports on the General Motors recall scandal over dangerous and defective ignition switches have been largely about numbers. The vehicle defect was known to certain GM employees for at least a decade, but a recall was not issued until earlier this year. At that time, the defect had been associated with 13 deaths and dozens of injuries.

The New York Times recently published an article that helps put a face on the victims affected by this scandal. It tells the story of a young woman named Lara, who is believed to be the first victim to die in an ignition-switch-related car accident after General Motors announced the recall. She died just three days after her parents received the recall notice in the mail.

On March 18, Lara was killed when her 2006 Saturn Ion slammed into the back of a tractor-trailer on a Virginia Highway. The crash was originally blamed on icy roads, but two tractor-trailers ahead of her had been able to stop safely. Her vehicle’s black box and much of the driver’s side of the car was destroyed in a subsequent fire. Therefore, it is unknown whether the air bags deployed and whether the power brakes were working. Both of these systems can be disabled if the defective ignition switch gets jostled and the car turns off.

It’s also unknown whether Lara had followed the advice to use only the ignition key with no other keys or fobs attached. This is the makeshift solution that GM has been telling drivers to use until their recalled vehicles are fixed.

General Motors has set up a compensation program for defect-related deaths. Payouts to families are offered at the sole discretion of one man, who is reading through hundreds of submitted claims. Settlements are confidential, which may be yet another sign that GM is trying to fix this problem as quietly as possible.

Lara’s family has been offered a settlement. Her father notes that “I find it very hard to accept GM’s apologies and efforts to bestow money on us as a compensation for my daughter. If they were a good corporate citizen, they could have done the right thing the first time and not caused this kind of pain and grief to parents and families all over the country.”

It’s likely that many other victims and their families are feeling the same way.

Source: The New York Times, “After a G.M. Recall, a Fiery Crash and a Payout,” Hilary Stout, Sept. 25, 2014

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