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GM CEO confronts 90-cent change that could have spared lives in Senate hearing

General Motors has hired the mediator who handled victims' claims from Sept. 11 and the BP oil spill to work on its response to victims of a defect in some 2.6 million vehicles linked to 13 deaths.

But under tough questioning from lawmakers, GM chief executive Mary Barra declined to explore many specifics about when GM found out about the problem and who would be held responsible, deferring to its own independent probe headed by attorney Anton Valukas.

And when shown documents that suggested GM engineers rejected changing the bad ignition switches because doing so would cost 90 cents a part, Barra said the information was "very disturbing," and rejected the claim that the company was making trade-offs between safety and cost.

"If there's a safety issue we take action," Barra said. "We've moved from a cost culture after the bankruptcy to a customer culture."

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She did say that in the period since she first learned about the recall on Jan. 31, the company has already changed, and she said she was "deeply sorry" to the victims' families for the crashes and deaths linked to bad igntion switches.

Both hearings in the U.S. House and Senate featured Barra along with regulators from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration who blame GM for withholding key details that they say could have spurred the agency to act earlier. Since launching a review of its safety process last month, GM has recalled some 7 million vehicles worldwide.

On Monday night, Barra met with family members of people who had died or were injured in crashes from the bad ignition switches; many of them later turned up outside the Capitol this morning. GM acknowledges at least 13 deaths linked to the ignition switches in Chevy Cobalts and other GM cars; safety advocates say the number could be far higher. "This car was surely a death trap," Samantha Denti, of Toms River, N.J., told USA Today. "Driving this car was like playing a game of Russian roulette."

During her two-hour appearance, Barra’s lack of specific answers often frustrated members of the committee, whose efforts to know what GM has done so far and who would be held accountable were met with Barra’s insistence that she would rely on Valukas to investigate those issues in due time.

"The red flags were there for GM and NHTSA to take action," said U.S. Rep. Tim Murphy, R-Penn, "but for some reason it didn't happen." He added: "To borrow a phrase, what we have here is a failure to communicate, and the results were deadly."

During his questions, Rep. Bruce Braley, D-Iowa, pulled out a tiny screwdriver and cap that he said was a promotional item GM gave out two decades ago, emblazoned with the slogan "Safety Comes First At GM.”
"Hasn't the core values of GM always been that safety comes first?" Braley asked.

"I've never seeen that part before," Barra replied. "All I can tell you is that today's GM is focused on safety."

Barra testifies again on Wednesday morning to the Senate Commerce committee; refresh this page for the latest live updates from the hearing below.

 


10:30 AM: Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., begins the hearing by recounting the crash of Brooke Melton, 29, who died in a 2010 crash of a 2005 Chevy Cobalt. A lawsuit by her parents first uncovered that GM had changed the ignition switch without changing the part number.

McCaskill says GM has "a culture of cover-up," noting that after the Meltons' attorneys revealed the problem, GM still waited nine months before issuing a recall.

“It’s now clear GM knew the switch was faulty in 2004,” McCaskill says. "We don’t know how many people crashed because of this cover-up. We do know many people died, including Ms. Melton.”

GM does not include Melton's death in the 13 it's linked to the defect; neither the front or side air bags in her Cobalt deployed.

10:35 AM: Sen. Dean Heller, R-Nev., suggests a link between GM's government bailout and the delay in the recall, asking whether GM was worried it couldn't survive such a recall during its bailout. "From where I'm sitting, GM has a lot of explaining to do both to this committee and to taxpayers."

10:42 AM: Mary Barra repeats her testimony from Tuesday, noting again her apologies on behalf of GM employees and herself.

10:48 AM: McCaskill goes back to the Melton case, asking for which GM lawyers were handling the case and who they told about the defective ignition parts: "If I'm a lawyer and I'm at a depostion where this bombshell is dropped on a client — I'm on my cellphone in the lobby telling General Motors 'we have a problem.'"

Barra says that question would be part of the GM investigation. McCaskill presses again; why wouldn't the attorneys report word of a serious safety defect to top executives? "So you don't know whether anything happened?"