CORPUS CHRISTI, Texas – A federal judge in Texas said she would consider arguments made Friday and await additional information, before deciding whether to grant an emergency injunction that could force General Motors to tell owners of more than 2 million cars with a defective ignition to not drive them until repaired.
U.S. District Judge Nelva Gonzales Ramos said she had not had time to thoroughly read a new brief by the plaintiffs filed only shortly before the hearing. About 40 people listened to more than two hours of arguments and testimony.
A flawed ignition switch in Chevrolet Cobalts, Saturn Ions and other small cars allows the key to turn from the “run” position to the “accessory” position, causing the loss of power steering, power brakes and the airbags.
GM has admitted to knowing the switches were defective for at least a decade, but didn’t start recalling the vehicles until February. The Detroit automaker has linked the faulty ignition switch to 13 deaths, while others, including the families of some victims, say there have been more.
On Wednesday, GM CEO Mary Barra told a Senate subcommittee that owners can continue safely using the cars if precautions are taken.
On Friday, holding a steering wheel and ignition for the judge to see, plaintiffs’ attorney Robert Hilliard described a defect that could occur at any time and was especially impacting young people because the cars were marketed to “newly-minted drivers.”
“There is no safe way to drive this vehicle at all because of the unknown event that has to occur for the defect to show up,” Hilliard said.
He pointed to the portion of GM’s recall notice that said there was a risk if “your vehicle experiences rough road conditions or other jarring or impact related events.”
Hilliard scrolled through photographs of the victims projected onto a large screen in the courtroom and spoke of youth lost. He called witnesses who testified about accidents or close calls in their vehicles. One was Jesse Hernandez, 23, who survived a crash that killed his twin brother in a red 2007 Saturn Ion in April 2012. He said he had fallen asleep while his brother was driving. Their car hit a guardrail and flipped three times. The airbags did not deploy.
“He ended up dying in my arms moments later,” Hernandez testified.
Laura Valle of Corpus Christi, said she did as instructed and removed everything except the key, but still suddenly lost power while driving to Wal-Mart in March.
“The car just died on me,” Valle testified.
Hilliard implored the judge to force GM to do more. He would propose a “Do Not Drive” sticker that would be plastered on every vehicle until it was repaired.
But David Balser, a lawyer for GM, called the measure Hilliard was asking the judge to take “unprecedented.” He said he knew of no court that had ordered such a move while a recall was underway. “It would cause mass confusion to GM’s consumers,” he said. “It would create chaos.”
Balser also noted that the plaintiffs, Charles and Grace Silvas, had already stopped driving their Chevrolet Cobalt back in February. The Silvas did not testify Friday.
Furthermore, as individuals, Balser said the Silvas had no standing to get an injunction for the general public. He said at least 15 class actions lawsuits had already been filed against GM in relation to this issue.
“They do not need a mandatory injunction telling GM to tell them to park their car because they have already parked their car,” Balser said. He said Hilliard only presented anecdotal evidence and no proof that the ignition defect was to blame in the incidents he cited.
Hilliard said the order was necessary because others were still driving the cars, making the roads dangerous for everyone.
GM is conducting an internal investigation that should be complete in 45 to 60 days. The Justice Department is pursuing a criminal investigation of how GM handled the recall.