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

Tue Apr 1, 2014 9:02pm 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 faulty ignition switches linked to at least 13 deaths "unacceptable," but could not give U.S. lawmakers many answers as to what went wrong.

After taking an oath at a House of Representatives panel, 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.

The questioning became contentious at times but it did not appear to rattle the GM chief executive, who rose to her current job in January. However, she repeatedly did not provide the answers House Energy and Commerce panel lawmakers were seeking, citing the company's ongoing internal investigation.

Still, during a nearly three-hour appearance on Capitol Hill, Barra testified again and again that GM had taken steps to prevent future safety problems from occurring. She labored to remind lawmakers that the so-called "new GM" she heads was nothing like the "old GM" that failed to deal with faulty ignition switches for more than a decade.

Barra was called to testify as part of congressional probes into GM's delayed recall of 2.6 million vehicles that could have faulty ignition switches that unexpectedly cause engines to stall and prevent air bags from deploying and power brakes and power steering systems to operate normally.

Barra also announced the company had hired a well-known consultant, Kenneth Feinberg, to examine what steps, if any, GM might take for families of crash victims. Safety advocates said the move indicated the company was exploring setting up a victims' compensation fund.

For all the claims of GM having a new culture, however, Barra and the three executives seated behind her in the hearing room have notched more than 120 years of combined employment with the automaker.

Asked whether GM previously had a culture that would have put cost considerations over safety, Barra responded, "We are doing a complete investigation but I would say in general we have moved from a cost culture, after the bankruptcy, to a customer culture. We have trained thousands of people in putting the customer first."   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