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GM ignition switch woes spur Casey, Blumenthal to propose anti-harm bill

| Wednesday, July 16, 2014, 11:38 p.m.
Stephanie Strasburg | Tribune-Review
US Senator Bob Casey (D-PA) speaks alongside US Senator Richard Blumenthal (front) (D-CT) as they address the Hide No Harm Act of 2014 during a press conference in the Capitol Visitors Center in Washington, DC on Wednesday, July 16, 2014. The Senators are co-sponsoring the bill along with US Senator Tom Harkin, in response to General Motors willful concealment of harm in the case of an ignition defect in certain vehicles.

Sen. Bob Casey joined with a Democratic colleague on Wednesday to sponsor federal legislation that would make it a crime for corporate executives to hide problems with products that may cause death or serious industry to consumers.

The Scranton Democrat and Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., said they were responding to the General Motors ignition switch defect that was blamed for 13 deaths. The lawmakers said GM executives became aware of the defect in 2004 but failed to issue recalls until 2014.

The Hide No Harm Act of 2014 would impose punishments of up to five years in prison and fines. The bill would give protections to corporate whistle-blowers who notify regulators and individuals who may be in danger, the senators said.

GM spokeswoman Heather Rosenker said the company needs to fully review the bill before it can comment.

“If a corporate officer knows of a defect in a product that could cause harm to consumers or workers and fails to act, then that officer should be held fully accountable by law,” Casey said at a news conference in Washington. The legislation has support from consumer advocates.

“Concealment by corporations can kill, and they should be held accountable,” said Blumenthal, a former five-term Connecticut attorney general. “What happened at GM should never happen again, and this measure would help ensure that it doesn't.”

The bill would establish a safe harbor for corporate whistle-blowers who choose to do the right thing, Blumenthal said.

It was referred to the Senate Commerce Committee, Casey spokeswoman Alex Miller said. A spokeswoman for the ranking minority member of the committee, Sen. John Thune, R-S.D., could not be reached for comment. A spokeswoman for Sen. Dean Heller, R-Nev., ranking minority member of the subcommittee on Consumer Protection, Product Safety, and Insurance, also could not be reached.

“I'm not sure that's the best way to solve the recall problem,” said Charles Elson, director of the Weinberg Center for Corporate Governance at the University of Delaware in Newark, N.J. “I don't disagree that people should be punished, but the timing seems more political than ultimately effective. This is a classic Washington response, and it's a long way from becoming law.”

Casey said, “The problems with the ignition switch in GM vehicles have had a significant impact on Pennsylvania families. It's not enough for GM to say it's sorry. We have to reform our laws so that those with the power to act are held accountable when they don't.”

On April 4, Jackie Gilbert of Philadelphia joined a growing number of owners of Chevrolet Cobalts, Saturn Ions and other General Motors cars who have sued the auto manufacturer, alleging the company was aware of a safety defect in ignition systems but failed to alert the public, according to the Philadelphia Inquirer.

On May 5, 2012, her 2010 Chevrolet Cobalt veered off northbound Route 11 near Chambersburg in southeast Pennsylvania, slid on its side and smashed into a utility pole. Gilbert, 27, suffered severe head injuries and multiple broken bones, and spent 15 days in Hershey Medical Center in a coma, where she underwent surgery to relieve a blood clot on her brain. She had to relearn to talk, eat, shop and read a newspaper.

According to government regulators, and the carmaker itself, the GM models' ignitions have a tendency to slip into the “off” position if slightly jostled, or if a driver uses a too-heavy key ring. That, in turn, shuts off the power steering and brakes, making the car harder to control, and prevents the air bags from inflating.

Trib Total Media staff writer Salena Zito contributed. John D. Oravecz is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7882 or joravecz@tribweb.com.

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