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An Engineer's Eureka Moment With a GM Flaw 357

theodp (442580) writes "Hired by the family of Brooke Melton in their wrongful-death lawsuit against GM, engineer Mark Hood was at a loss to explain why the engine in Melton's 2005 Chevy Cobalt had suddenly shut off, causing her fatal accident in 2010. Hood had photographed, X-rayed and disassembled the two-inch ignition switch, focusing on the tiny plastic and metal switch that controlled the ignition, but it wasn't until he bought a replacement for $30 from a local GM dealership that the mystery quickly unraveled. Eyeing the old and new parts, Hood quickly figured out a problem now linked to 13 deaths that GM had known about for a decade. Even though the new switch had the same identification number — 10392423 — Hood found big differences — a tiny metal plunger in the switch was longer in the replacement part, the switch's spring was more compressed, and most importantly, the force needed to turn the ignition on and off was greater. 'It's satisfying to me because I'm working on behalf of the Meltons,' Hood said. 'It won't bring their daughter back, but if it goes toward a better understanding of the problem, it might save someone else.' Next week, GM CEO Mary Barra will testify before Congress about events leading up to the wide-ranging recall of 2.6 million vehicles."
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An Engineer's Eureka Moment With a GM Flaw

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  • by antifoidulus ( 807088 ) on Sunday March 30, 2014 @11:04PM (#46618233) Homepage Journal
    A new car built by my company leaves somewhere traveling at 60 mph. The rear differential locks up. The car crashes and burns with everyone trapped inside. Now, should we initiate a recall? Take the number of vehicles in the field, A, multiply by the probable rate of failure, B, multiply by the average out-of-court settlement, C. A times B times C equals X. If X is less than the cost of a recall, we don't do one.

    Pretty much par for the course for these companies....
  • by viperidaenz ( 2515578 ) on Sunday March 30, 2014 @11:33PM (#46618353)

    But if he violates your fishing patent, you can sue him to oblivion.

  • by viperidaenz ( 2515578 ) on Sunday March 30, 2014 @11:34PM (#46618357)

    Unless the shareholders support his decision.

  • by Nemyst ( 1383049 ) on Monday March 31, 2014 @12:46AM (#46618557) Homepage
    Part of the reason for a corporation is that you dissociate financial liability between the corporation itself and its employees. It's what makes incorporating attractive to smaller companies, since if the company sinks into heavy debt it doesn't take you down with it.
  • by thegarbz ( 1787294 ) on Monday March 31, 2014 @01:33AM (#46618691)

    The rest of the industry uses things called Revision numbers.

    There's no reason to change the part number wholesale if the component is compatible with the old one, but not keeping track of inventory or keeping track of the change, as from TFA it appears GM have done, really does smell of a coverup. In fact if what the article is saying is true GM may get royally screwed out of this. I haven't heard their side of the story but so far it sounds like underhanded tactics to conceal and silently fix a fault that they know is going to be a problem. Not good.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Monday March 31, 2014 @03:11AM (#46618935)

    Part of the reason for a corporation is that you dissociate financial liability between the corporation itself and its employees.

    No, it's dissociate financial liability between the corporation and its shareholders. Employees don't have less liability than employees in non-corporation businesses.

    Officers are legally liable for anything the company does. The "corporate veil" separates the corporation from the owners, as the parent says. It does NOT protect C-level officers (nor, often, their direct reports) from actions taken by the company, even if those officers themselves did not commit the act. At that level of office, they are expected to know about the actions of the company and to stop anything unlawful from occurring.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Monday March 31, 2014 @03:18AM (#46618953)

    Fuso trucks Japan. they knew about a problem but did not recall, this resulted in a death. The people who did not do the recall got suspended prison terms


  • by sjbe ( 173966 ) on Monday March 31, 2014 @07:58AM (#46619807)

    Why can't lawsuits touch CxOs?

    They can but you have to first establish that the CxO was specifically at fault for something. Explain to me exactly what criminal action Mary Barra, the current CEO of GM, or one of her predecessors engaged in that failed in their duty of care [wikipedia.org]. Exactly what action did they knowingly take given the information available to them at the time of the decision that resulted in people's deaths. Remember that just because they were in charge at the time isn't adequate proof of anything. A CEO relies on the technical expertise and advice of the people that work for him/her. Remember that the NTSB [wikipedia.org] also had access to this information years ago and did not think it sufficiently serious to force a recall either.

    I assure you that the CEO isn't pouring over technical data so if the problem was never presented to the CEO as a serious problem then how can we reasonably blame the CEO personally? Do you really think the CEO of McDonalds should be personally liable for every instance of food poisoning that occurs even if they have instructed their organization to take every reasonable precaution available to them consistent with accepted safety standards? Would you think it appropriate for you to be held liable for the actions of your coworkers even if you had nothing to do with them?

    then why can't individuals at the top be held civilly liable for decisions that they make that kill people, especially when they kill in multiple discrete instances?

    They can be but the standard of proof is necessarily high. The general reason is that perfect safety is impossible and just because someone is in charge does not automatically mean they were negligent. We don't sue the CEO of Boeing personally because of an engineering failure in a Boeing jet that he had nothing to do with because that is not reasonable or fair. The question is whether they met their duty of care [wikipedia.org]. 30,000 people each year die in car accidents in the US alone. If we held the officers of the companies that made those products liable for each of those deaths then there would be no cars because no one would be willing to run the company. We have the corporate veil for a very good reason and the standard of proof is high for good reason. You have to establish that there was clear evidence of a serious safety issue, that the information was known to the person (or should have been known) you were suing, that they made a knowing decision to disregard that information and that it was specifically their actions that were a proximal cause [wikipedia.org] of the injuries that occurred.

    If a dock worker can be criminally prosecuted to serve almost two decades in prison because he set what he intended to be a small fire in a submarine compartment to get off work early

    That is a criminal and negligent action that can clearly be tied to the actions of that person. I assure you that no CEO of any major car company is poring over engineering data from faulty switches. They are actually quite removed from the process until such time as it is brought to their attention.

    It looks like it should be a fairly simple matter.

    I assure you it is not at all simple. Not At All.

    Sue them for the entire quantity of bonus that they made working for the company as a punitive action.

    Ok, so then companies don't award bonuses and they compensate in other ways. What's your next move?

    BTW there are going to be PLENTY of lawsuits over this and there is a very good change Delphi (the Tier 1 supplier that sold the switches to GM) may go bankrupt again over the matter. There is going to be plenty of fallout without us pointlessly making a scapegoat out of a CEO and probably the wrong CEO at that since GM doesn't actually make the switches.

  • by Dishevel ( 1105119 ) on Monday March 31, 2014 @03:41PM (#46624415)
    They are paying for it and you know this or you are so trapped by your beliefs that you can no longer see the truth.

    Just because I am buying a package does not mean that I am not paying for the things in it. They choose not to put their money into certain things. This in no way prevents a person from paying for and obtaining these things on their own! Their freedoms are not being infringed upon in any way. Your access to skydiving is not infringed by me not including it in your pay package.

    Since we both know the truth and neither of us claim to be developmentally disabled so badly as to not see facts directly in front of us, You already know this. You just want "That bastard religious company" to suffer. This means that you are being purposely disingenuous. That makes you a bad person.

If it's not in the computer, it doesn't exist.