WASHINGTON (Detroit Free Press) -- An internal analysis of General Motors' records found reports of ignition switch problems in certain car models dating back to 2001, potentially raising deeper questions about why it took the automaker so long to initiate a recall.Reports from GM required by federal regulators were posted on a government website late Wednesday. Those showed that only additional analysis done early this year led the company to add several models to the recall, which now affects 1.6 million vehicles worldwide and 1.37 million in the U.S.
Those reports were made public as auto safety experts urged GM to waive the legal immunity dating to its bankruptcy that protects it from lawsuits arising from crashes before July 2009. At least 12 people died in 31 crashes linked to the defect. At least five of those deaths occurred in accidents before GM exited bankruptcy, according to a Free Press review of documents filed with the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.
Federal regulators, congressional investigators and the U.S. Justice Department have initiated probes into why it took GM as long as it did to recall 2005-7 Chevrolet Cobalts, 2003-7 Saturn Ions, 2006-7 Pontiac Solstices and several other vehicles. As early as 2007, regulators informed GM of a possible problem with the ignition switch being jostled into a position where power was cut off and airbags were disabled.
But evidence of a problem may have existed even earlier. A review of reports from as far back as 2001 mentioned issues related to ignition switches in affected vehicles.
One, from 2003, "documented an instance in which the service technician observed a stall while driving," and said the weight of key chains had worn out the ignition switch.
Dealers are being told to replace the ignition switch. New CEO Mary Barra has said she is personally leading efforts to address the recall that has mushroomed into GM's biggest crisis since it came out of bankruptcy in July 2009.
Notices went out to owners this week. Prior to Wednesday night's posting, it was believed the first notice to GM of an ignition switch being jostled from position was in 2004. At that time, a tracking inquiry and solutions were considered, but the inquiry was closed, the company said, "after consideration of the lead time required, cost and effectiveness of each of these solutions."
In the new timeline of events dating back to 2005 and posted on NHTSA's website Wednesday. GM acknowledged its Executive Field Action Decision Committee — which initiated the recall — had not been initially asked to consider recalling the Ion, HHR, Solstice and Sky.
Early this year, the internal review, which began in 2007, was expanded to consider those models "because these vehicles were equipped with the same ignition switch" as the Cobalts and Pontiac G5s which were being examined, Gm said in the new filing.
But the review didn't include some vehicles such as the Saturn Ion, in which airbags did not deploy during crashes. It wasn't until last year that the company review determined that an ignition part in the early models that did not meet GM specifications was changed after 2010. That change "increased the switch's torque performance." Delphi provided the original switches – but it was not immediately clear from the report whether it or another supplier made the later change.
Still, unless GM agrees to waive its defense to claims prior to July 2009, many potential lawsuits could be precluded, even if a driver or passenger died.
Clarence Ditlow, who runs the Center for Auto Safety, and Joan Claybrook, a former head of NHTSA, signed a letter to Barra on Wednesday asking GM to set up a $1-billion fund "to cover losses of victims and families of safety defects whose claims have been extinguished by the bankruptcy or barred by statues of repose or limitations."
The company responded by saying it is "focused on ensuring the safety and peace of mind of our customers involved in the recall." It did not directly address the government-granted immunity.
"It is true that new GM did not assume liability for claims arising from incidents or accidents occurring prior to July 2009. Our principle throughout this process has been to the put the customer first, and that will continue to guide us," GM's statement concluded.
There's no way of knowing whether the solutions previously considered by GM -- or the ones being put into effect now — might have prevented any of the 12 fatalities, which happened during crashes that may have been unrelated to the ignition switch defect itself.
"Only GM knows which of the death and injury claims on the Cobalt and other recalled vehicles are due to the ignition key defect. But it's far more" than reported so far, said Ditlow and Claybrook, who is on the board of Public Citizen, a consumer advocacy organization.
The family of Brooke Melton, 29, who died in a 2010 crash in a 2005 Cobalt, were not affected by GM's liability shield. They sued and settled with GM in a confidential agreement. But the Melton family's lawyer, Lance Cooper of Marietta, Ga., said GM still needs to take corrective action for what he called a corporate cover-up of a problem it was well aware of.
"Instead of recalling their product, they started paying the claims, which is outrageous," Cooper said, adding that waiving the liability protection "would be a good step in the right direction."
Also on Wednesday, a U.S. Senate subcommittee announced it will hold a hearing sometime in April, joining a House committee that has launched an investigation. The U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York has also opened an inquiry into whether GM may have violated any criminal statutes in the reporting of the defect and its consequences.
"We have to get to the bottom of this," said Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., chairman of the subcommittee on consumer protection. "We need to find out who dropped the ball and put millions of Americans at risk. We also need to make sure that General Motors and federal regulators are doing everything they can to prevent more tragedies like this now and in the future."