A GM Engineer’s Testimony Could Be Key in Assessing Company’s Behavior

McClatchy Washington BureauApril 11, 2014 


2005 Chevrolet Cobalt sedan.


— In sworn testimony last year, General Motors’ lead engineer in dealing with a faulty ignition switch repeatedly denied having any knowledge of a part change although he personally signed off on the redesign in 2006, excerpts of his deposition show.

The excerpts, among scores of documents released by a U.S. House committee, offer a stunning glimpse of what may be a pivotal issue in a Justice Department review of the company’s failure to address the problem for nearly a decade. GM has acknowledged that at least 13 people have died in crashes involving half a dozen of its models, including its 2005-2010 Chevrolet Cobalt and some models of its Pontiac G5 and Saturn Ion. Some consumer advocates fear the toll could be significantly higher.

Republican Rep. Fred Upton of Michigan, the chairman of the Energy and Commerce Committee, said Friday the panel's review of 250,000 GM documents to date indicates that “failures in the system” allowed the company to keep risky cars on the road for nearly a decade.

“And when it comes to vehicle safety, a matter of life and death, there is no margin for error,” he said. “With a better sense of what happened, our task now is figuring out why there was a breakdown to help prevent similar failures in the future.”

The testimony of Raymond DeGeorgio, one of two GM engineers whom company Chief Executive Officer Mary Barra this week suspended with pay, came in a deposition last year in a suit brought by the family of a Georgia nurse who died in a Chevy Cobalt crash on her birthday in 2010.

What DeGeorgio apparently didn’t know at the start of the deposition is that engineer Mark Hood, hired by the family of the late Brooke Melton, had already done enough forensics work to figure out that GM had redesigned the ignition switch to reduce chances that a knee bump or light jostling of the key ring would turn it off.

In the deposition, attorney Lance Cooper first asked DeGeorgio whether any changes had been made to the switch between 2006 and 2010.

DeGeorgio replied that there was an electrical change, but said “there were no official changes, mechanical changes … that I know of.”

Asked if he knew of instances in which the switch had rotated to the “accessory” position, which would shut down the power steering, power brakes and airbag deployment system, DeGeorgio said he had “heard of a couple of instances in ’05.”

Cooper zeroed in, asking what was done in response, and DeGeorgio replied that a committee examined the problem and “deemed that it was low risk and left it at that.”

A short time later, after an instance that DeGeorgio attributed to “aggressive driving,” the the committee met again and decided to provide a “service fix” for customers who showed up at dealerships complaining about the problem, he testified.

In April 2006, seven years before the deposition, DeGeorgio signed off on a revision to the switch to lengthen a spring called a “detent plunger,” to increase the switch’s torque so it would be less likely to rotate if gently jarred.

However, when Cooper displayed photos of two versions of the plunger, one longer than the other, DeGeorgio said he hadn’t previously noticed the height difference.

Asked how a taller plunger would affect the switch, the engineer said “it’s hard for me to assess, really.” Cooper pressed ahead, noting that DeGeorgio had “taken apart a number of the switches,” but was testifying that he never noticed the difference in the two parts.

Was DeGeorgio aware of the part change, Cooper asked.

“I was not aware of a detent plunger switch change,” DeGeorgio replied. “We certainly did not approve a detent plunger design change.”

A company spokesman declined to comment on DeGeorgio's testimony.

Email: ggordon@mcclatchydc.com; Twitter: @greggordon2.

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