13 deaths, 57-cent GM part: Idaho man's family joins demonstrators

A congressional hearing features the embattled auto company's new CEO

krodine@idahostatesman.comApril 2, 2014 

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    New General Motors CEO Mary Barra announced Tuesday that the company has hired Kenneth Feinberg - who handled the fund for the victims of 9/11, the Boston Marathon bombing and the BP oil spill - to explore ways to compensate victims of accidents in the GM cars. Barra stopped short of saying that GM would establish such a fund.

    Owners of the recalled cars may ask dealers for a loaner vehicle while waiting for the replacement part. Barra said GM has provided more than 13,000 loaners.

    Homedale's Rosie Cortinas and others who lost loved ones in crashes linked to the faulty ignition switch are joining vehicle safety advocates in calling for new legislation. One proposed Senate bill would stiffen the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration's Early Warning Reporting System to better inform the public about potentially deadly defects.

Homedale resident Rosie Cortinas is still coming to terms with the death of her son in a head-on crash last October and the recent realization that it might have been caused by a faulty ignition switch in a Chevrolet Cobalt.

Tuesday was a particularly difficult day: Cortinas and about 20 others whose loved ones' deaths have been linked to the switch sat in a congressional hearing and listened to General Motors CEO Mary Barra field questions about why it took 10 years to recall cars that had the defective switch.

Among the statements from lawmakers was that the fix would have cost GM less than 60 cents per unit, not counting labor.

"It's hard to hear that they are just not answering, just bouncing around with their same story, never answering with a real answer," Cortinas told the Statesman in a phone interview from Washington.

During a House subcommittee hearing, Barra acknowledged under often testy questioning that the company took too long to act. She promised changes at GM that would prevent such a lapse from happening again.

"If there's a safety issue, we're going to make the right change and accept that," said Barra, who became CEO in January and then found herself thrust into one of the biggest product safety crises Detroit has ever seen.

As relatives of the 13 crash victims looked on intently, she admitted that she didn't know why it took years for the dangerous defect to be announced. And she deflected many questions about what went wrong, saying an internal investigation is underway.

Barra was firm, calm and polite throughout the proceedings. She struggled at times to answer pointed questions, particularly about why GM used the switch when the part didn't meet its own specifications.

"I think we in the past had more of a cost culture," she said, insisting that GM is moving toward a more customer-focused culture.

BLAMING GM

Since February, GM has recalled 2.6 million cars - mostly Chevrolet Cobalts and Saturn Ions - over the faulty switch, which can cause the engine to cut off in traffic, disabling the power steering and power brakes, as well as the air bags.

The automaker said new switches should be available starting April 7.

In his prepared remarks, National Highway Traffic Safety Administration chief David Friedman pointed the finger at GM, saying the automaker had information last decade that could have led to a recall, but shared it only last month.

Friedman vowed to "hold General Motors accountable" for failing to provide appropriate and timely data to regulators.

Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Calif., said House Energy and Commerce Committee staff members found 133 warranty claims filed with GM between June 2003 and June 2012, detailing customer complaints of sudden engine stalling when they drove over a bump or brushed keys with their knees.

Friedman said his agency had reviewed mounds of information about consumer complaints, early warning data, special crash investigations and manufacturer information about air bags.

SEEKING JUSTICE

It was four months before the recall was announced when 23-year-old Amador Cortinas was behind the wheel of his best friend's Cobalt. The car veered across the center line of Idaho 19 just east of Wilder and smashed into an oncoming truck.

Cortinas and his friend, Daniel Valdez, died; the other driver survived.

There appeared to be no explanation for what happened, Rosie Cortinas said. Tests showed her son hadn't been drinking, and he wasn't texting or using his cellphone.

In February, she heard about the recall. Many of the details in her son's fatal crash matched others linked to the faulty switch: The car veered to the left, and there were no signs that the driver hit the brakes.

The Cobalt in which her son died is being examined, she said, and lawyers are looking into the case.

"But the reason we're here is not compensation, it is justice for my son and his best friend ... and to save other people's lives," Cortinas said.

What would she like to see happen?

"I would like them to park each and every one of these cars," Cortinas said. "Some people died after their cars had supposedly been repaired."

She and other family members held a news conference before the subcommittee hearing demanding action against GM and stiffer legislation.

Amador Cortinas was a big, open-hearted man well known in Homedale as a champion wrestler and longtime employee of the local NAPA Auto Parts store, his mother said. He often dropped by Homedale High after work to help with the wrestling program, she said, and on March 18 the school unveiled an award in his name that will be given to wrestlers who show outstanding leadership.

Cortinas said that after her son died, she was touched by the number of people who approached her with praise for him.

"My daughter told me, 'You should be so proud of him,' " she said. "I am. But I want him back."

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