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WV Senator questions GM's CEO on vehicle safety

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One West Virginia Senator is taking it upon himself to question the CEO of General Motors on behalf of a Mountain State family.

U.S. Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., chairman of the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation, questioned the CEO of General Motors on behalf of Sam and Belinda Spencer of West Virginia whos son, Leslie, died in an automobile crash along U.S. Route 460 in a 2007 Chevy Cobalt – one of the models subject to GM’s recalls because of the defective ignition switch.

The Commerce Committee’s Subcommittee on Consumer Protection, Product Safety, and Insurance, held a hearing to examine the GM recalls on July 17.

According to the Spencer family, their son’s Cobalt lost power because of a defective ignition switch, and it appears his airbag failed to deploy upon impact. However, the airbag in his vehicle eventually deployed, but likely did so after the initial deadly impact. Unfortunately, the strict terms of the Compensation Program for victims of GM’s defective ignition switch, administered by Feinberg Rozen, LLP, currently state that if any airbag in a car deploys at any time, victims are ineligible for financial redress. Consequently, Mr. Kenneth R. Feinberg, who testified at the hearing and operates the Compensation Fund, said it was unlikely that the Spencers would be eligible for financial redress from the fund.

In a question asked by Subcommittee Chairman Claire McCaskill, Rockefeller pressed GM CEO Mary Barra to pledge to do everything in her power – including amending the terms of the Compensation Program – to make sure victims and families, like the Spencers, are able to seek financial redress from the compensation fund if the facts prove the defective ignition switch is at fault.

“I am sure there are other victims out there who are similarly disqualified from the proceeds of your compensation fund because of similar circumstances. Ms. Barra, you have consistently stated in public that GM will do all that it can to rectify its past sins. You have pledged to compensate all victims of this terrible tragedy. You have repeatedly told Congress and this Committee that the ‘New GM’ will do the right thing and help those families who suffered terrible losses as a result of this defective ignition switch and your company’s gross negligence,” Rockefeller said in his prepared question.

“If Mr. and Mrs. Spencer are proven to be correct – if their son did, in fact, tragically lose his life because his Chevy Cobalt lost power along US-460 because of the defective ignition switch – will you pledge to do everything you can to allow the Spencers and victims under similar circumstances to seek financial redress from your compensation fund? Will you amend the terms of the compensation fund if that’s what it takes?”

Last month, Rockefeller introduced the Motor Vehicle Safety Act of 2014, in reaction to the series of tragic deaths that resulted from faulty ignition switches in GM vehicles, as well as a wave of recalls by various automakers, which have highlighted gaps in the ability of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) to meet its mission of saving lives, preventing injuries, and reducing crashes.

The Motor Vehicle Safety Act of 2014 aims to enhance NHTSA’s ability to carry out important safety programs and hold auto manufacturers and dealers accountable for the safety of their vehicles.

The legislation:

Would give NHTSA greater safety authority, including the authority to remove dangerous vehicles from the road and raise caps on civil penalties for safety violations; Would increase funding for NHTSA’s chronically underfunded vehicle safety programs by authorizing appropriations for NHTSA and imposing a vehicle safety user fee on auto manufacturers; Would prohibit car dealers from selling used vehicles with known pending safety recalls without fixing the defect or making the consumer aware of the defect; and Would promote greater transparency at NHTSA by requiring public availability of early warning data, improving consumer access to the vehicle safety database, and limiting the revolving door between NHTSA and the auto industry.
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