GM and NHTSA Elude Accountability in Failed Fire Risk Recall

It has now been more than three months since news broke that General Motors, once again, failed to properly protect owners of its vehicles from risks resulting from shoddy quality control. The latest incident involves about 1.4 million GM vehicles that were at risk of erupting into flames due to engine oil seepage. The at-risk vehicles were previously recalled by GM years ago, but the quick-fix remedy offered by GM did not solve the underlying problem.

It appears that most of mainstream media has been fiddling while the GM vehicles burned. One of the few articles that criticized the latest GM recall failure came in November of 2015 from the Associated Press via the Detroit Free Press. That story questioned the actions of GM in the case along with the crony government regulatory environment as NHTSA failed, yet again, to take action on a well-known safety problem. Following are excerpts from that piece that give insight to GM’s latest recall failure:

Shortly after Elizabeth Berry parked her bright yellow 2003 Chevrolet Monte Carlo SS on the street in front of her family's home in May 2014, flames engulfed the engine, destroying the car and scorching her mailbox.

"I was hysterical. That was like my third baby," she says of the car.

Compounding the shock was the fact that five years earlier, Berry had answered a recall notice from General Motors for a repair that was supposed to prevent engine fires.

Two weeks ago, Berry learned that she is one of 1,345 car owners in towns across the U.S. whose cars caught fire even after getting the repair called for in the recall. GM acknowledged the fix didn't work and issued a new recall involving 1.4 million older cars, some for a second time.

The post-recall fires raise questions about whether GM should have acted sooner, whether the government should have taken notice and stepped in, and whether the ineffective fix should have been approved in the first place.

"Over 1,000 fires is a huge number that should have generated a safety recall by GM before now," says Clarence Ditlow, head of the nonprofit Center for Auto Safety, a watchdog group. "To make matters worse, NHTSA missed the defect in its complaint database."

The problem in question relates to various GM models ranging in model years from 1997 to 2004. As early as in 2006 complaints were surfacing of vehicles catching on fire. The cause of the fires was determined to be oil leakage from valve cover gaskets which ignited in flames when dripping on to hot exhaust manifolds.

Recalls by GM in 2008 and 2009 did not properly address the safety issues. In most cases, only flammable plastic parts near the seepage sites were replaced, leaving the underlying problem of valve cover leakage unaddressed. Of course, this was the cheaper fix that GM chose in a ludicrous attempt to solve the problem by limiting the spread of fires that started as a result of leaking oil, as further described by the Detroit Free Press piece:

GM spokesman Alan Adler said two weeks ago that if any oil dripped and caught fire, it would cause a small "pilot flame," that company tests showed would burn out on its own. "We were trying to remove anything that would allow the flame to spread," he said.

But Jake Fisher, a former GM engineer who now is Consumer Reports' director of auto testing, says the recall should have addressed the oil leak on all the cars. He was surprised GM would allow an open flame under the hood. "I can't imagine a scenario where that would be acceptable," he says.

Erik Gordon, a lawyer and University of Michigan business professor, says the decision not to fix the leak shows that GM's culture was to find the cheapest, easiest repair. "This is a 'we'll get out the duct tape' kind of approach," he says. "We're not going to replace the gaskets because that's too expensive."

A review by The Associated Press of NHTSA's complaint data on just one model, the 2001 Grand Prix, shows 466 complaints of engine fires, including 33 concerning fires after recall repairs were made. Complaints of fires on recall-repaired cars started in June of 2009, more than six years ago.

Elizabeth Berry says that after her Monte Carlo burned last year she called GM and a representative told her that recall repairs hadn't fixed the problem. She says GM offered her $2,000 and asked her not to have the car towed or to contact insurance. But her insurance company offered her four times more, so she took that offer and bought a Mazda6.

So let’s get this straight, GM knew about an oil leak that would cause a small “pilot flame.” Instead of fixing the leak, GM decided to try and contain the open fire; in the words of their spokesman “trying to remove anything that would allow the flame to spread.” NHTSA was aware of the problem for years and failed to protect the public from the safety hazard but, once again (see story on Justice Department’s slap on the wrist for deadly ignition switch cover-up), GM’s powerful connections and crony status has protected it from widespread criticism and shielded them from what should be a public outcry over repeatedly failing to assure that motorists are safe from risks arising from shoddy quality control.

Mark Modica is an NLPC Associate Fellow.