Skip to main content

Don't let the auto industry kill you

By Shanin Specter
July 30, 2014 -- Updated 2031 GMT (0431 HKT)
General Motors' CEO Mary Barra was questioned on Capitol Hill over the botched recall this week. The company have recalled<a href='http://money.cnn.com/2014/04/01/news/companies/barra-congress-testimony/index.html'> nearly 7 million vehicles so far this year</a>. Here is an overview of which cars have been affected so far. General Motors' CEO Mary Barra was questioned on Capitol Hill over the botched recall this week. The company have recalled nearly 7 million vehicles so far this year. Here is an overview of which cars have been affected so far.
HIDE CAPTION
Which cars are affected by the GM recall?
Which cars are affected by the GM recall?
Which cars are affected by the GM recall?
Which cars are affected by the GM recall?
Which cars are affected by the GM recall?
Which cars are affected by the GM recall?
Which cars are affected by the GM recall?
Which cars are affected by the GM recall?
Which cars are affected by the GM recall?
Which cars are affected by the GM recall?
Which cars are affected by the GM recall?
Which cars are affected by the GM recall?
<<
<
1
2
3
4
5
6
7
8
9
10
11
12
>
>>
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Shanin Specter: The General Motors flawed ignition scandal is not an isolated case
  • Specter: Other auto companies, like Ford, also sold defective cars that killed people
  • He says more incidents will occur if we don't strengthen laws that punish car companies
  • Specter: Now, the civil justice system is the only check on auto industry; that's not enough

Editor's note: Shanin Specter is a partner in the Philadelphia law firm of Kline & Specter. He represented the Bobb, White and Blumer families in their cases against Ford. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.

(CNN) -- General Motors' disastrous handling of its ignition problem is not isolated. GM's lead competitor, Ford, also mismanaged similar problems in the past.

GM sold millions of defective cars with ignitions that would inadvertently shut off while vehicles were in motion, causing an untold number of deaths and injuries. The problem was known within GM for years. But the company hid the facts from federal regulators and the American people.

The ignition debacle is just the latest in a long, sad string of scandals plaguing the auto industry. In a manner hauntingly similar to GM's ignition problem, Ford has mishandled defective parking brakes in their F-Series trucks.

Shanin Specter
Shanin Specter

The repetitive nature of these deadly occurrences requires a muscular federal response. The government agency charged with overseeing auto safety, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, should be doing a much better job protecting the public.

In the early 1990s, Ford began utilizing self-adjusting parking brakes in their F-Series trucks to save a few dollars in service. The brakes were poorly designed and immediately began self-disengaging. With no parking brake engaged, the trucks just rolled away. This phenomenon occurred frequently, from a Ford field engineer's own truck, to Tammy Bobb's F-150, which rolled over the head of her 10-month-old son, Derick, in rural Pennsylvania. By 1999, more than 1,100 owners reported these parking brake failures to Ford, along with at least 54 injuries.

Ford assigned engineer Tim Rakowicz to the problem. After careful study, Rakowicz recommended a recall of the trucks along with an inexpensive fix. But the recall recommendation was rejected by Ford managers, apparently concerned with the cost and image problems associated with admitting the brakes were bad on the best-selling line of motor vehicles in the world.

GM parsing deaths in recall probe
GM, family battle over death list
Family 'angry' despite GM firings

Eventually, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration got involved. It asked Ford for answers, but Ford stalled. It requested a recall, but Ford delayed. Finally, with the threat of a NHTSA lawsuit looming, Ford agreed to a recall.

The company then took six months to inform owners, during which 3-year-old Walter White of Elko, Nevada, was killed by a runaway truck. When Ford finally sent out recall letters, they understated the nature of the problem, leading owners to believe that the issue was one of convenience, not safety, thereby causing fewer trucks to come in for service.

NHTSA permitted the long delays, failed to fine Ford, approved the weak recall letter and refused to order a second recall even after a Nevada jury awarded $153 million to Walter White's parents.

Fortified by myopic government oversight, Ford continued to sell F-Series trucks with defective parking brakes until 2004. In that year, one of these runaway trucks rolled over tow truck operator Joe Blumer in Pittsburgh, killing him.

Even then, NHTSA and Ford failed to act to tell owners the real problem and to order an effective recall. Today, anyone in America downhill from one of thousands of parked, unfixed F-Series truck remains at risk from a runaway truck.

At some point, the Bobb, White and Blumer families were financially compensated through the civil justice system. But they would trade the money they received for the restoration of the life and health of their loved ones. These tragedies -- and thousands of near misses from other runaway Ford trucks -- would have been prevented had Ford and NHTSA acted responsibly.

The GM faulty ignition system is like the Ford F-Series parking brake disaster. The national attention on this problem came about only because a Georgia trial lawyer, Lance Cooper, hired an engineer to determine why his client's daughter was killed. If it were not for him, GM would still be hiding the truth. The company now promises financial compensation to the victims and their families, but that's an insufficient substitute for life and health.

Meanwhile, we wonder, what's going to be the next example of defective vehicles killing Americans?

We'll be condemned to repeat the mistakes of our past if we don't strengthen federal law and practice to prosecute and punish car companies and their decision-makers who act irresponsibly. GM has been fined a paltry $35 million, which is the maximum amount allowed by our inadequate law. No one at GM has been indicted. The company's general counsel has kept his job, and a complete list of those people the company fired hasn't been made public.

How can we expect to deter the selling of vehicles known to be defective if wrongdoers aren't identified, fired and prosecuted and if the company isn't forced to pay huge fines?

For now, the civil justice system is the only check on the auto industry, and that's simply not enough.

Read CNNOpinion's new Flipboard magazine

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook.com/CNNOpinion.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 2006 GMT (0406 HKT)
Timothy Stanley says Lewinsky is shamelessly playing the victim in her affair with Bill Clinton, humiliating Hillary Clinton again and aiding her critics
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 0102 GMT (0902 HKT)
Imagine being rescued from modern slavery, only to be charged with a crime, writes John Sutter
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 1600 GMT (0000 HKT)
Tidal flooding used to be a relatively rare occurrence along the East Coast. Not anymore, write Melanie Fitzpatrick and Erika Spanger-Siegfried.
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 1135 GMT (1935 HKT)
Carol Costello says activists, writers, politicians have begun discussing their abortions. But will that new approach make a difference on an old battleground?
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 1312 GMT (2112 HKT)
Sigrid Fry-Revere says the National Organ Transplant Act has caused more Americans to die waiting for an organ than died in both World Wars, Korea, Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 1851 GMT (0251 HKT)
Crystal Wright says racist remarks like those made by black Republican actress Stacey Dash do nothing to get blacks to join the GOP
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 2207 GMT (0607 HKT)
Mel Robbins says by telling her story, Monica Lewinsky offers a lesson in confronting humiliating mistakes while keeping her head held high
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 1329 GMT (2129 HKT)
Cornell Belcher says the story of the "tea party wave" in 2010 was bogus; it was an election determined by ebbing Democratic turnout
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 2012 GMT (0412 HKT)
Les Abend says pilots want protocols, preparation and checklists for all contingencies; at the moment, controlling a deadly disease is out of their comfort zone
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 0336 GMT (1136 HKT)
David Weinberger says an online controversy that snowballed from a misogynist attack by gamers into a culture war is a preview of the way news is handled in a world of hashtag-fueled scandal
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 1223 GMT (2023 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says Paul Krugman makes some good points in his defense of President Obama but is premature in calling him one of the most successful presidents.
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 0221 GMT (1021 HKT)
Conservatives can't bash and slash government and then suddenly act surprised if government isn't there when we need it, writes Sally Kohn
October 22, 2014 -- Updated 1205 GMT (2005 HKT)
ISIS is looking to take over a good chunk of the Middle East -- if not the entire Muslim world, write Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider.
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 1300 GMT (2100 HKT)
The world's response to Ebola is its own sort of tragedy, writes John Sutter
October 17, 2014 -- Updated 2033 GMT (0433 HKT)
Hidden away in Russian orphanages are thousands of children with disabilities who aren't orphans, whose harmful treatment has long been hidden from public view, writes Andrea Mazzarino
October 18, 2014 -- Updated 1722 GMT (0122 HKT)
When you hear "trick or treat" this year, think "nudge," writes John Bare
October 18, 2014 -- Updated 0442 GMT (1242 HKT)
The more than 200 kidnapped Nigerian schoolgirls have become pawns in a larger drama, writes Richard Joseph.
October 17, 2014 -- Updated 1345 GMT (2145 HKT)
Peggy Drexler said Amal Alamuddin was accused of buying into the patriarchy when she changed her name to Clooney. But that was her choice.
October 16, 2014 -- Updated 2043 GMT (0443 HKT)
Ford Vox says the CDC's Thomas Frieden is a good man with a stellar resume who has shown he lacks the unique talents and vision needed to confront the Ebola crisis
October 18, 2014 -- Updated 0858 GMT (1658 HKT)
How can such a numerically small force as ISIS take control of vast swathes of Syria and Iraq?
October 17, 2014 -- Updated 1342 GMT (2142 HKT)
How big a threat do foreign fighters in Syria and Iraq pose to the West? It's a question that has been much on the mind of policymakers and commentators.
October 17, 2014 -- Updated 1221 GMT (2021 HKT)
More than a quarter-million American women served honorably in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. Now they are home, we have an obligation to help them transition back to civilian life.
October 16, 2014 -- Updated 2027 GMT (0427 HKT)
Paul Begala says Rick Scott's deeply weird refusal to begin a debate because rival Charlie Crist had a fan under his podium spells disaster for the Florida governor--delighting Crist
October 16, 2014 -- Updated 0407 GMT (1207 HKT)
The longer we wait to engage on Ebola, the more limited our options will become, says Marco Rubio.
October 15, 2014 -- Updated 1153 GMT (1953 HKT)
Democratic candidates who run from President Obama in red states where he is unpopular are making a big mistake, says Donna Brazile
October 16, 2014 -- Updated 0429 GMT (1229 HKT)
At some 7 billion people, the world can sometimes seem like a crowded place. But if the latest estimates are to be believed, then in less than a century it is going to feel even more so -- about 50% more crowded, says Evan Fraser
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 1653 GMT (0053 HKT)
Paul Callan says the Ebola situation is pointing up the need for better leadership
October 15, 2014 -- Updated 2245 GMT (0645 HKT)
Nurses are the unsung heroes of the Ebola outbreak. Yet, there are troubling signs we're failing them, says John Sutter
October 15, 2014 -- Updated 1700 GMT (0100 HKT)
Dean Obeidallah says it's a mistake to give up a business name you've invested energy in, just because of a new terrorist group
October 15, 2014 -- Updated 2301 GMT (0701 HKT)
Fear of Ebola is contagious, writes Mel Robbins; but it's time to put the disease in perspective
October 14, 2014 -- Updated 1744 GMT (0144 HKT)
Oliver Kershaw says that if Big Tobacco is given monopoly of e-cigarette products, public health will suffer.
October 18, 2014 -- Updated 1335 GMT (2135 HKT)
Stop thinking your job will make you happy.
October 15, 2014 -- Updated 0208 GMT (1008 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette says it's time to deal with another scandal involving the Secret Service — one that leads directly into the White House.
October 14, 2014 -- Updated 1125 GMT (1925 HKT)
Americans who choose to fight for militant groups or support them are young and likely to be active in jihadist social media, says Peter Bergen
October 13, 2014 -- Updated 1303 GMT (2103 HKT)
Stephanie Coontz says 11 years ago only one state allowed same sex marriage. Soon, some 60% of Americans will live where gays can marry. How did attitudes change so quickly?
October 14, 2014 -- Updated 2004 GMT (0404 HKT)
Legalizing assisted suicide seems acceptable when focusing on individuals. But such laws would put many at risk of immense harm, writes Marilyn Golden.
October 13, 2014 -- Updated 1307 GMT (2107 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says the issues are huge, but both parties are wrestling with problems that alienate voters
October 13, 2014 -- Updated 2250 GMT (0650 HKT)
Mel Robbins says the town's school chief was right to cancel the season, but that's just the beginning of what needs to be done
October 11, 2014 -- Updated 1543 GMT (2343 HKT)
He didn't discover that the world was round, David Perry writes. So what did he do?
ADVERTISEMENT