If anyone wondered why General Motors CEO Mary Barra herself has taken charge of the company's massive 1.55 million vehicle recall related to faulty ignition switches, and why she named GM veteran Jeff Boyer to the newly-created position of vice-president, global vehicle safety – effective immediately, let's put a number on it: $1.2-billion (all figures in U.S. dollars).
That's the fine Toyota Motor has agreed to pay after admitting in a U.S. plea bargain or "deferred prosecution agreement" to misleading "U.S. consumers by concealing and making deceptive statements about two safety-related issues affecting its vehicles, each of which caused a type of unintended acceleration."
In truth, Toyota's recall issues from 2009-2010 of more than 10 million vehicles, recalls which led to the deal with prosecutors this week to resolve federal charges of how it handled unintended acceleration problems, cost the company more than $1.2-billion.
Toyota has also settled lawsuits from owners who claimed economic losses of about $1.6-billion in both Canada and the U.S. And Toyota has paid more than $66-million in civil penalties to the U.S. Government's safety agency. And then there has been the cost to Toyota reputation, which has been real, though difficult to measure.
Any sensible observer can see why GM's new CEO swiftly jumped on everything related to the company's ignition switch recall. Obviously there is the tragedy of loss of life. GM has told regulators of documentation showing a number of crashes and fatalities. That alone is enough for a swift call to action.
But the issue that could really wallop GM in ways very reminiscent of Toyota with its 10-million recall, is the suspicion of a cover-up. Various reports say U.S. officials are looking into this very matter. And Toyota's recent experience suggests they will be relentless.
U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder did not address the GM issue specifically this week, but at a news conference addressing the Toyota deal he said, "My hope and expectation is that this resolution will serve a model for how to approach future cases involving similarly situated companies."
So, has GM in any way misled consumers and others about the ignition switch issue going back a decade? That's the question. If so, even if those doing the misleading were at a level in the company far below Barra, then this will do unimaginable damage to GM's post-bankruptcy recovery.
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