GM Ignition Switch

GM IGNITION SWITCH SCANDAL.11 Years Later, Woman’s Death Is Tied to G.M. Ignition Defect,NYT.111114

11 Years Later, Woman’s Death Is Tied to G.M. Ignition Defect

By RACHEL ABRAMSNOV. 10, 2014 New York Times

WASHINGTON, Conn. — Jean P. Averill warranted only a footnote.

Her death in a car crash in 2003 appeared at the bottom of page 103 in the 315-page internal

report on the failure of General Motors to disclose a deadly safety defect in millions of its small

cars.

And even then Ms. Averill’s name was blackened out in the version of the report released to the

public.

But the unredacted report, a copy of which was reviewed by a person not authorized to disclose it

publicly, as well as interviews and an examination of federal regulatory correspondence, show that Ms. Averill looms large in the ignition-switch safety crisis that has engulfed the automaker

this year.

She was among the 13 victims that G.M.’s legal department linked to the defect, The New York

Times has found. In fact, her death in December 2003 was the earliest such fatality the company

logged on its books, and the first to involve a Saturn Ion. Vehicles with the defective switch can

suddenly turn off, making it difficult for drivers to maintain control and disabling airbags.

Photo

Jean Averill, shown in a photograph at left with Mark, died in a car crash in December 2003, the

earliest fatality linked to a defective ignition switch used in G.M. cars. Credit Misha friedman for

The New York Times

Yet even today, Ms. Averill’s family says, G.M. has not told it about the link to her death. Until

informed by The Times, the family did not know it was eligible to receive a minimum of $1

million from a victims’ compensation fund the automaker established.

G.M.’s last known communication related to the family was in 2004, when the automaker

rejected an insurance claim for Ms. Averill’s accident because the airbag had not deployed when

her car struck a tree, according to the internal report.

Only last week, when the family — at the request of The Times — asked the National Highway

Traffic Safety Administration about Ms. Averill’s death, did it receive confirmation that she was

among the 13.

“That’s just so incomprehensible to me,” said Susan Averill, 66, Ms. Averill’s daughter-in-law.

“All these years, we didn’t know why she crashed into a tree.”G.M. said it was making good-faith efforts to tell affected owners about the compensation fund,

including sending letters to current and former owners, and mailing claim forms to those who

had previously filed a claim against G.M.

“Our goal is to be just and timely in compensating all of the families who lost loved ones and

those who suffered serious physical injury,” the company said in a statement.

G.M. declined to say whether it had made a specific effort to reach the Averills and the 12 other

families identified by G.M.

Until now, Ms. Averill’s family said they believed she had probably died of a stroke while

driving. Ms. Averill was 81, the matriarch of a family that has grown fruits and vegetables on a

farm in Connecticut since 1746. A widow, she was fit and active, swimming often and helping at

the family’s farm stand during the busiest months.

Now, family members find themselves in a race against the calendar if they are to receive

compensation from the victims’ fund administered by the compensation specialist Kenneth

Feinberg. The fund has committed to making payments to the families of 32 people who died

and 35 others who were injured because of the faulty switch.

Ms. Averill’s relatives say they are considering filing a claim — payments in the case of a death

are almost certainly more than the $1 million starting point — but with a deadline of Dec. 31,

they have come to the process late.

The family said it would consider suing, but it cannot because G.M. has protection from

litigation involving incidents that occurred before the company emerged from bankruptcy in

2009. That protection is being challenged in court, though G.M. has waived its shield in the cases

Mr. Feinberg approves.

“They should be able to extend the deadline now that we know, and they didn’t tell us,” said Sam

Averill, 68, one of Jean Averill’s four children, as he and other family members gathered in the

back room of the small store that was packed with apples, cider and fresh doughnuts.

“No way,” said his son, Tyson Averill, 29, shaking his head. “Why would they extend it after

they tried so hard to keep it from us?”

When asked about extending the deadline, G.M. said that Mr. Feinberg had sole discretion over

making awards to eligible victims, including eligibility to participate. Mr. Feinberg has

encouraged people to apply for compensation even if they ultimately decide not to accept it. Mr.

Feinberg could not be reached for comment.

Ms. Averill’s accident was like many related to the ignition switch. There seemed to be no

explanation as to why her car would suddenly swerve off the road about two miles from her

home on Dec. 23 and hit a tree. After the accident, it was clear that the airbag had not deployed.The defective switch led G.M. to recall the 2.6 million cars starting in February and set off the

worst safety crisis in the automaker’s history. As investigations by state and federal prosecutors

continue, G.M. has recalled more than 26 million cars this year in the United States for a wide

range of defects in addition to the switch.

Through it all, G.M. has sought to reassure the public that it is trying its best to do the right thing

for those affected by the defect.

“We recognize we have civic responsibilities as well as legal responsibilities,” Mary T. Barra,

the chief executive, told a House subcommittee at a hearing in April.

The former United States attorney Anton R. Valukas, hired by G.M. to conduct the internal

review, said in the redacted report released in early June that “organizational dysfunction”” and

“a pattern of incompetence” had allowed the defective switch to go uncorrected for more than a

decade.

In May, The Times reported the identities of 12 of the 13 victims identified by G.M. through

interviews, accident databases and communications from federal regulators. In those cases as

well, the families said G.M. did not inform them that it had included their lost family member in

its internal tally.

Ms. Averill’s relatives said it never crossed their minds to sue G.M. after the crash because

nothing was known publicly then about the ignition-switch defect.

“We feel bad that we couldn’t have thought of doing something way back then,” Sam Averill

said, “and it might have saved a lot of other lives.”

Share