TORONTO – Class-action lawsuits against General Motors are beginning to pile up over the automaker’s handling of defective ignition switches in 1.6 million small cars worldwide.
About 235,000 of those cars were sold in Canada, and at least two separate law firms are seeking to represent people who are looking for compensation, adding to several other suits in the United States.
Over the past week, Merchant Law Group LLP filed claims against the Detroit-based auto maker in Ontario, Quebec and Saskatchewan, saying that GM knowingly misled customers about safety issues by hiding its knowledge of the ignition problems.
Sutts, Strosberg LLP, based in Windsor, Ont., a law firm that also handles many class action cases, also recently posted a message in a local newspaper seeking GM vehicle owners.
Class action lawsuits are intended to provide legal representation for relatively large number of people seeking compensation for the same problem — such as a defective product.
In the GM ignition switch recall, the company has acknowledged it learned about the problem at least 11 years ago, yet it failed to recall the cars until last month.
Those revelations have compounded what might’ve otherwise been a more routine safety recall, and sparked a series of external investigations in the United States.
The U.S. Department of Justice, safety regulators and two congressional committees are exploring whether the company was responsible for any wrongdoing, which could include criminal liability.
Transport Canada is also investigating whether a faulty ignition switch was responsible for a fatal crash in Quebec last June, however a spokeswoman would not say whether the government planned to dig further into GM’s responsibilities in the recall.
“As this matter is currently under investigation, it would be inappropriate to comment,” spokeswoman Roxane Marchand said in an email.
Automakers are required by law to inform Transport Canada of defects, the agency said.
In the class action filing, Merchant Law Group seeks to represent and compensate people across Canada for defects in various models of small cars with the defective switch, used between about 2003 and 2007.
Its plaintiffs include two women who “now drive their vehicles with extreme caution, fearing that they could experience a sudden, unintended engine shutdown, and risk bodily harm.”
“General Motors had a duty to design, manufacture, and market vehicles that were reasonably safe for their intended uses, and to provide true and accurate information to the public,” its court filing said.
General Motors said Thursday it doesn’t comment on matters before the courts.
Typically, upfront costs of such suits are borne by the law firm handling the suit and the lawyers are compensated with a share of a negotiated settlement or court-imposed penalty, if any.
When it comes to massive vehicle recalls, the number of claimants can soar — but some cases can take years to resolve.
GM announced last month that ignition switches in older models of the Chevrolet Cobalt, Pontiac G5s, Saturn Ion, Chevrolet HHR, Pontiac Solstice and Saturn Sky need to be repaired.
Those are the vehicles that form the basis of the Canadian suits against General Motors.
Earlier this week, the new head of GM apologized saying the company took too long to notify owners about the needed repairs.
Chief executive Mary Barra, who took the leadership role in mid-January, said the company takes responsibility for mishandling the defect and would do what’s right for customers. GM also announced it was hiring a new head of global safety.
Barra stopped short of saying the company would compensate families killed in crashes caused by faulty ignition switches. That number is likely to rise above the 12 currently cited by the company as GM and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration review accident reports and consumer complaints.
“I am very sorry for the loss of life that occurred, and we will take every step to make sure this never happens again,” Barra said on Tuesday.
An internal investigation is underway and will take about seven months to complete. In the meantime, the company has not contacted the families, she said.
In Ontario, the Merchant Law Group class-action filing names both Christina Duquette and Jessica Schaafsma as lead representative plaintiffs in the action. None of their allegations has been tested in court.
Duquette alleges she experienced two sudden engine shutdowns in her 2006 Pontiac G5 while driving, with both instances between 2011 and 2013.
The documents said Schaafsma, who is an expectant mother, has considered buying another vehicle to replace her 2005 Chevrolet Cobal LS to ensure the safety of her child.
On Monday, GM issued a new recall of 1.5 million larger vehicles, including 70,437 in Canada, because their side air bags, front centre air bags and seat belts may not work properly if drivers ignore a warning light on their dashboard.
— with files from The Associated Press