GM Ignition Engineers Gagged By Orwellian Rules, Jury Told - Law360
Law360, New York (March 15, 2016, 11:20 PM ET) -- As GM refrained from urgently investigating reports of failing ignition switches, engineers deep within the organization were effectively prevented from sounding alarms by a policy that forbade terms like “problem,” “bad” and “rolling sarcophagus,” a former automotive industry engineer testified in a bellwether trial Tuesday.
The company is engaged in a three-week trial over the claims of Louisiana driver Dionne Spain and passenger Lawrence Barthelemy, whose Saturn roadster spun out on an icy bridge two years ago. They walked away with few injuries. But the plaintiffs blame the now-infamous ignition switch, whose hair trigger could shut down the car while it was moving, even at high speeds. General Motors LLCclaims the switch wasn’t involved in Spain and Barthelemy's crash.
Slides shown in court Tuesday laid out a list of terms engineers were directed to avoid. They included “safety,” “big time,” “good,” “defect,” “ghastly,” “Challenger,” “powder keg,” “deathtrap,” “widow-maker” and “Cobain.”
“This practice of limiting how engineers can describe situations was one of the factors that allowed this situation to stay down and not get the attention that it needed for such a long time,” former Delphi engineer Steve Loudon told the court. Loudon spent his career in automotive electronics, writing software that controls airbags, among other things. He’s now a frequent expert witness in car-defect cases.
“You’re limiting [engineers] from being as precise and accurate as they could be,” Loudon said.
But in a deposition played soon after, a GM employee offered a defense of the policy. “‘Problem’ is judgmental: You’ve already decided that there was a problem,” engineer Eric Buddrius said on video.
Meanwhile on Tuesday, on a different floor of the same building, a Second Circuit panelappeared troubled by the landmark bankruptcy ruling that largely shielded the post-Chapter 11 version of General Motors from liability tied to the deadly ignition-switch defects, with one appellate judge wondering how the decision could have been made in the bankruptcy context at all.