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Inside the Ignition Switch that Launched the GM Recall

Posted By Regan Zambri & Long || 21-Jul-2014

The new ignition switch GM created in the late 1990s was supposed to be less expensive, less flammable, and virtually foolproof. Defective product attorneys, and now the world, know that it sadly did not work very well.

Ray DeGiorgio, a switch engineer, was responsible for redesigning the switch’s electrical system. In addition to electrical problems, the switch also presented mechanical difficulties. It didn’t meet GM’s own requirements, such as how much force it withstood before rotating. Rather than taking time to fix the problem, DeGiorgio approved the switch, referring to it as the “switch from hell.”

Not long after its release onto the market, customer complaints began. Drivers of the Saturn Ion and Chevy Cobalt, the first vehicles to incorporate the switch, reported that their cars were stalling for no obvious reason. Engineers didn’t consider this a “safety issue,” arguing that drivers could still muscle their cars to safety without power steering.

However, what engineers failed to anticipate was that when engines stalled, airbags would also not deploy in case of an accident – endangering the lives of their already vulnerable customers. Amazingly, Wisconsin State Patrol Trooper Keith Young and a research group at Indiana University separately managed to link airbag failures to the malfunctioning ignitions when GM engineers didn’t – at least not until 2007.

This was when engineer John Sprague started tracking air bag malfunctions in the Cobalt. He had hypothesized that the ignition problems were preventing airbags from deploying, but also noticed that the phenomenon had stopped in 2007 and later model year vehicles.

Unbeknownst to Sprague, DeGiorgio had approved a change to the switch in 2006, increasing the force required for turning the key in the ignition. However, he failed to update the part number after the change, despite a GM protocol that required him to do so.

The change wasn’t discovered until a law firm compared X-rays of switches from two different model years and noticed the discrepancy.

Although the mysterious switch at the heart of the GM scandal may have been what disabled consumers’ cars, it was the negligence and dishonesty of GM engineers and other complicit individuals that led to at least 13 deaths and countless injuries.

Have you or a loved one been affected by a defective auto part from GM or another manufacturer? The Washington D.C. defective product attorneys at Regan Zambri & Long can help. Contact us at (202) 759-6699 to schedule your free consultation.

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