What Judge Judy taught me about the GM recall

Today marks the debut of our new Driving columnist, Lorraine Sommerfeld. Lorraine, the winner of numerous awards, is a passionate writer with a strong connection to the automobile. She uniquely illustrates how cars and trucks intertwine with our everyday lives. And because she says it all so well, you’ll be seeing her every Monday online and in print regularly. Go ahead, ask her anything, and welcome her aboard. You can find her right here or at lorraineonline.ca.

I like watching Judge Judy while I make dinner. The yelling (hers) and outbursts (the litigants) on the show shut out the yelling (mine) and outbursts (the kids) in my kitchen. Judy sits up high and gets to rain down the heavy gavel, making her word the last one. She wears her omnipotence with the same flourish she wears her judicial robes.

When there was a mention of General Motors on the show recently, I turned up the volume and turned down the dinner.

It was a throw-away line, and the case playing out was pretty standard fare, but she had my full attention. A mother had co-signed a car loan for her daughter. You might have done something like this yourself for your offspring. I know my Dad did, and I would have sold off a body part before I’d have missed a payment. The girl before the judge looked intact to me, which is probably why her own mother was suing her.

A partially missed payment meant Mom turned into a repo man, and she’d taken the car back. A little harsh, I thought, but maybe a good lesson. Judge Judy peered over her glasses at Mom, recapping the story.

“You went to her work, took out the child seat, and took the car,” she said. Wow. That’s some cold parenting going on, Grandma.

Mom nodded.

Judy said the car would never have been repossessed by a real bank. Mom stressed they had an agreement, and she was well within her rights. She not only took the car, she put it where her daughter couldn’t even find it.

Then it got interesting. At the part where they all start yelling over each other, the daughter said the car had been having some problems. It was a 2009 Chevy Cobalt. The engine was cutting out, and the power steering kept quitting.

GM's ingition switch recall affects 1.6 million vehicles, including the Chevrolet Cobalt. Approximately 235,000 of the affected vehicles are in Canada.

GM’s ignition switch recall affects 1.6 million vehicles, including the Chevrolet Cobalt. Approximately 235,000 of the affected vehicles are in Canada.
Handout, GM

I picked up the spoon I’d dropped. Had her miserable mother maybe saved her life?

General Motors is embroiled in one of the largest public relations messes in the industry. Ignition switches on some models and for some years can be pulled out of position by heavy key chains or jarring road conditions. While essentially becoming a case of who knew what, and when, the fallout will surely be hugely expensive for GM, but more important, the switches have led to the deaths of some unwitting drivers.

Faulty ignition switches – a problem diagnosed and quietly changed years ago – could slip into the accessory position while the car was being driven. A New York Times article last week illustrated devastating stories of drivers suddenly dealing with no power steering and no power brakes when the engine turned off, rendering airbag systems useless. It doesn’t help that we’re talking about inexpensive smaller cars, typically purchased by a younger demographic. In a deposition, GM engineer, Ray DiGiorgio said he tested the problem by driving his son’s 2007 Cobalt around the neighbourhood. He said when he got the switch to fail, he had no problem safely stopping the car. Maybe he should be 18 and on a freeway before insulting buyers who’ve never felt armstrong steering before.

GM has settled some cases, but as more surge forward, the optics get worse. The company knew internally 13 years ago it probably had a problem, and it made fixes as needed with no fanfare. For nearly five years, its engineers certainly knew they had a problem. We’re now at 13 confirmed deaths, a number that will surely climb. Toyota, which used a similar head-in-the-sand approach in 2009 when reports began of their cars suddenly accelerating, has paid out nearly $5 billion in fines and repairs. The U.S. National Highway Safety Administration has reported a possible 89 deaths due to unintended acceleration.

Nissan recently instigated its own recall of more than a million vehicles in North America regarding a passenger seat airbag problem. Three accidents, no deaths. Porsche has recalled its 2014 911 GT3s for a fire hazard. Two reports, no injuries. Recalls may be a painful admission, but this is how you do it.

GM had been on an upswing, but the post-bailout honeymoon is most assuredly over.

The car Judge Judy was debating was not on the initial recall list from GM, but has since been added as the list expands – it currently stands at 2.6 million vehicles. A lawsuit in California aims to prove that GM’s “own engineering documents reflect that the defects transcend just the ignition switch and also include the placement of the ignition switch.”

Manufacturers of all stripes owe consumers better. This is about to get ugly. There will be years of excuses and legal manoeuvring as people are reduced to numbers and points on a graph. I’m eager to hear more than “we’re sorry.”

But I can’t help but hear an oft-repeated refrain from the no-nonsense judge on my television: “If it doesn’t make any sense, it’s a lie.”


About Lorraine Sommerfeld