CEO Barra calls GM's actions on deadly defect 'unacceptable'

Tue Apr 1, 2014 5:56pm EDT
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By Ben Klayman and Eric Beech

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - General Motors Co CEO Mary Barra on Tuesday called her company's slow response to at least 13 deaths linked to faulty ignition switches "unacceptable," but could not give U.S. lawmakers many answers as to what went wrong as she pointed to an ongoing internal investigation.

After taking an oath administered by House Energy and Commerce Oversight and Investigations Subcommittee Chairman Tim Murphy, Barra kicked off the contentious hearing by declaring, "I am deeply sorry" for the company's failure to respond quickly to the safety problem and subsequent deaths.

Representative Henry Waxman, a veteran Democrat who has spearheaded past attempts to tighten U.S. laws on automotive safety, bluntly told Barra: "Because GM didn't implement this simple fix when it learned about the problem, at least a dozen people have died in defective GM vehicles."

GM first learned of a problem with its ignition switches on Chevrolet Cobalts, Saturn Ions and other models in 2001, documents have shown, but took no steps to recall any cars until this past February.

Lawmakers are investigating why GM and regulators missed or ignored numerous red flags that faulty ignition switches could unexpectedly turn off engines during operation and leave airbags, power steering and power brakes inoperable.

The unflappable Barra repeatedly told the committee that GM was now doing a better job of overseeing the quality of its products.

She also announced that GM had retained Kenneth Feinberg, who recently oversaw the BP oil spill fund, as a consultant. Feinberg will also gauge possible responses to families of those injured or killed in crashes involving now-recalled cars, Barra said.

This was the first time that any GM executive has hinted at the possibility of a victims' compensation fund, as many consumer groups and Democrats in Congress are urging.   Continued...

GM Chief Executive Officer Mary Barra testifies during a House Energy and Commerce hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington April 1, 2014. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque