GM chief says death tally could rise in ignition switch defect

General Motors CEO Mary Barra spoke at a news conference before the shareholders meeting.
General Motors CEO Mary Barra spoke at a news conference before the shareholders meeting. AP

General Motors’ chief executive, Mary T. Barra, said Tuesday that the number of deaths and accidents linked to defective ignition switches could increase when an independent compensation plan is completed.

Speaking before the automaker’s annual meeting, Barra said Kenneth Feinberg, a lawyer who specializes in victim compensation, would “independently determine” how many people died or were seriously injured in millions of small cars with faulty ignition switches.

She said GM’s tally of 13 deaths and 54 accidents was based on “the information we have right now,” but that figure could grow in the weeks ahead.

“We are relying on the expertise of Kenneth Feinberg, who is experienced in designing and administering complex compensation programs,” Barra said.

The company has declined to estimate the overall cost of compensating accident victims and their families. Since February, GM has set aside $1.7 billion to pay for the switch recall, covering 2.6 million older cars and dozens of subsequent recalls to other models.

The annual meeting was the first time Barra had addressed shareholders during the switch crisis.

Fewer than 30 shareholders attended the meeting, held at GM headquarters in downtown Detroit. Barra devoted most of her prepared remarks to the company’s failure to recall defective cars for years despite knowing a faulty part could cause vehicles to lose power and deactivate air bags.

In her speech, Barra apologized again to accident victims and their families and vowed to improve GM’s commitment to safety.

“Nothing is more important to us than the safety of our customers,” she said. “Absolutely nothing.”

Last week, GM released the results of a three-month internal investigation of the delayed recall by Anton R. Valukas, a former U.S. attorney.

In his report, Valukas cataloged how GM employees failed for years to repair the faulty switch installed in Chevrolet Cobalts, Saturn Ions and other small cars.

Fifteen GM employees, including at least three senior corporate lawyers, were dismissed for their role in the problem, and five others were disciplined.