I often listen to a car related radio broadcast by National Public Radio (NPR).  A couple of years back, a caller asked the hosts of the show, comedic brothers/MIT graduates/car mechanics, if her husband had a good point warning her against keeping her car ignition key on a key chain with ten other keys, a bottle opener, and a number of scanner cards for anything from the drug store, the supermarket, the cleaners, the ice cream shop… you get the picture.  After a couple of minutes of comical babbling, the hosts advised her not to keep so many things on her car key chain, lest the weight cause the ignition switch to drop from the “on” position and accidentally turn off the engine.

At least thirteen deaths are reportedly related to a defective ignition switch installed in various General Motors models.  GM has acknowledged that switches used in some of its small cars were quietly changed in 2007 to provide more torque, reducing the chance of turning off the engines.  However, it was in fact reported that after requesting their vendor to change these switches, the part number (traditionally changed any time there is a change in the part to avoid confusion with prior, different parts) remained the same.

Needless to say, a problem like this begets lawsuits; lawsuits with punitive damages, if it can be proven that GM knew of the switch problem and did not recall all of the potentially affected vehicles.  GM’s attorneys have discovered that most of these lawsuits could be limited by arguing to the Court that the ignition switch problem occurred prior to GM’s 2009 bankruptcy filing and that any damages arising to pre-2009 injuries are now barred.

“Using bankruptcy protection to fend off lawsuits is not unexpected”, said Boston University Law School professor Walter Miller, as cited by the Wall Street Journal. This approach will likely infuriate the public, but the public relations issue that arises from hiding behind the bankruptcy code will last only as long as the media covers this event. The company relies on the public’s short attention span and the fact that, like scandals and sensational news items, the shelf life of this media item is short.  The news will get old, and people will forget – until the next misstep.

To find out more information about the GM recall check out their official website on the issue. GMignitionupdate.com