When I took the case that became Adams/Esparza v General Motors, filed and tried in the San Francisco Superior Court in 1983, General Motors was the largest manufacturing company in the world. Today, it is a limping behemoth just emerging from bankruptcy following a generous bailout from the United States Government. What I found was going on inside the company in the late1970s turns out to be what was still going on in 2002 and after the bankruptcy.
When, as reported in the New York Times on its March 25 front page, GM engineers attended a meeting in May of 2009 where it was conclusively determined that an ignition defect existed in hundreds of thousands of cars and the company denied the fact for years thereafter, then we are dealing with something other than arrogant incompetence. We are, I am afraid, looking at an inevitable consequence of our devotion to the corporate model and its building block of greed.
As a veteran several years of General Motors safety defect litigation, I find the stories of the ignition defect both seriously disturbing and in need of some context. This essay addresses the need for context because the story is so disturbing.
GM manufactured and sold nine million pickup trucks from the model year 1973 through 1987. It was the only pickup manufacturer that placed its fuel tanks outside the vehicle’s frame rails and just inside the sheet metal of the body. The Chief Engineer on the truck at the time of the design’s initiation, Earl Stepp, testified that the peculiar placement of the fuel tank was really intended to allow for the uniform installation of two twenty gallon tanks – one on each side, outside the frame rail. It was, he said, a response to the requests from GM marketing for more fuel capacity and safety enineeringwas not a consideration.
The peculiarity of Stepp’s design was not only that it was different from that of other truck makers, but also because it clearly violated GM’s internal fuel tank design safety standard that was established and published internally long before Mr. Stepp took over as the Chief Engineer. The problem was that the fuel tank, containing the destructive energy of roughly twenty sticks of dynamite, was exposed to likely collision forces. In the ordinary side-impact, the incoming vehicle or light pole or whatever would easily crush the body’s sheet metal and then proceed to crush the tank itself against the frame rail resulting in a burst or a tear. The fuel is then released in a spray and the spray is the most volatile form of gasoline – it will likely ignite and the result is very often a firestorm. This was not a matter of sophisticated engineering.
As a measure of the severity of the defect, the Fatal Accident Reporting System ( FARS) properly searched, produces a number on which it is reasonable to rely as fatalities caused by the defect. That number, in the case of the GM pickup fuel tanks exceeded 870 by the time I stopped counting in about the year 2000. That makes that defect the worst in American automotive history.
Ultimately, the relentless pursuit of documents by tort lawyers revealed a concerted corporate effort to keep damning secrets, even its repeated violation of the National Highway traffic Safety Act ( NHTSA) by “fudging” on required crash testing. The Secretary of Transportation, Federico Pena, issued an unprecedented report in October of 1994 which included the following fifth conclusion about the side mounted fuel tank design:
…”of crucial importance in this matter, is the evidence that GM was aware, possibly as early as the mid-1970’s but certainly by the early 1980’s, that this design made these trucks more vulnerable and that fatalities from side-impact fires were occurring. However, GM chose not alter the design for 15 years.”
Like the pickup’s fuel tank design, the ignition in these GM product appear to be “peculiar”, i.e. no other brand seems to be experiencing the disconnect associated with these GM products. Like the pickup’s fuel tank design, there is no question that GM engineers knew that the ignition switch design was defective years preceding the ultimate mea culpa of a few weeks ago.
I had, for years while I was in the midst of the litigation with GM, concluded I was dealing with a simply arrogant giant willing to cover up the incompetence of its own engineers and leadership. In that, it seemed perfectly average among corporations. Of course, that conclusion is still true but more of an explanation is needed – an explanation and some serious thought to what we do about it.
It is probably true that many organizations, public and private, function as a tribal culture. Groups within the entity evolve their own rules and loyalties, often without concern for the goals of the company or the agency. In GM’s case that tribal culture creates a clear and real danger to the public at large. The way the tribe worked at GM is that a group would follow a leader and depend on the leader for advancement. Job performance is only a minimal requirement because the tribe acted to insulate the individual from accountability so long the individual remained loyal to the tribe.
For nearly all the years that I was involved in suing GM, it was the largest manufacturer in the world and its approach to litigation reflected that fact. In the first matter I handled, Adams/Esparza v GM, GM counsel showed up at the San Francisco courthouse on the first few days of the trial in chauffeured limousines ( two of them) that carried lawyers and support staff that outnumbered me and my staff by about ten times. In that case, GM brought in full size vehicles to demonstrate the wisdom of its design and conducted a special full scale re-enactment of the subject collision – all of this in a warehouse attended by the court and the jury.
Seven years later in Woodland, California, limousines weren’t necessary. The defense forces were ensconced on two floors of an office building across the plaza from the courthouse. Every day lead counsel, his associate and four or five paralegals and younger lawyers with clerical staff pushing carts laden with boxes would march across the square as a Roman legion might have marched into some undefended European city. In the meantime, I would approach from the rented two bedroom apartment four blocks away pushing my hand truck.
Ultimately, I sought punitive damages because people kept dying and suffering unspeakable misery from burns. Ultimately, too, I would not agree to confidentiality in settlements (GM lawyers actually forced me to testify once about the amount of the settlement after the verdict in Adams/Esparza ).
It appears that in the case of the ignition defect this country cannot patiently abide the conduct of GM, maybe because it is a beneficiary of our concern for it and the communities that depend on it. We aren’t talking about a hard working company that fell on bad times because of matters beyond its control. We are, instead, confronted by an operation that encourages malfeasance.
As made clear in recently published analyses, the cover up of this defect and the existence of viable claims against the company prior to bankruptcy is a betrayal of the Nation. That’s an object lesson that greed is, in fact, not good.