General Motors may be losing the public relations battle in its recall of defective cars, but the company scored a much-needed victory last week in its escalating legal war.
The automaker fended off a potentially devastating court order Thursday when a federal judge denied a motion that would have forced it to advise the owners of the 2.6 million recalled Chevrolet Cobalts, Saturn Ions and other small cars with a faulty ignition switch to keep the cars off the road until they are fixed.
Recent filings by the company in other cases show that it plans to aggressively fight any legal action stemming from episodes from before July 10, 2009, the date it emerged from bankruptcy.
The ruling on the so-called Park It motion came in a lawsuit filed by a Texas couple, Charles and Grace Silvas, over compensation for the lost value of their recalled 2006 Chevrolet Cobalt. Judge Nelva Gonzales Ramos of U.S. District Court in Corpus Christi, Texas, denied the motion, saying the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, the federal agency that regulates the nation’s roadways, had primary jurisdiction over the issue.
“The court is of the opinion that NHTSA is far better equipped than this court to address the broad and complex issues of automotive safety and the regulation of automotive companies in connection with a nationwide recall,” Ramos wrote.
Allan Kam, a safety consultant in Bethesda, Md., who worked for the agency for more than 25 years and retired as its senior enforcement lawyer, said he found nothing in the law that would give the agency authority to force an automaker to tell customers to stop driving a car.
GM had vigorously fought the motion, saying it was unnecessary and would “confuse consumers and result in regulatory chaos.”
The defective switch can, if jostled, shift the ignition of a moving car into the “accessory” power mode, potentially shutting down power steering and brakes and disabling air bags. GM has linked the problem to 31 accidents and 13 deaths.
Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., who has criticized the company’s handling of the ignition safety issue, called on GM to voluntarily advise owners not to drive the recalled cars.
“GM has no reason to rejoice in this partial and premature victory, because its customers remain at risk, and its legal responsibility for future harm is only higher,” Blumenthal said in a statement.