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GM CEO Mary Barra to receive Appeal of Conscience award for handling of recall scandal

General Motors

GM CEO Mary Barra will receive an Appeal of Conscience Award on September 23rd from the interfaith organization Appeal of Conscience Foundation.

Barra is being honored for her leadership in the wake of a shocking revelation in late January that General Motors had delayed a potentially deadly ignition switch recall for ten years.

The switches could be knocked out of the run position into the accessory position when the cars went over a bump.  That disabled safety features, including airbags.

GM admitted that at least 13 people were killed since 2004 in accidents linked to the ignition switches turning off while the cars were traveling at high speeds. 

The problem affected 2.6 million Cobalts, HHRs, Saturn Ions, and several other models of small cars no longer in production.

Mary Barra had been CEO of General Motors fewer than 60 days before the recall.  Her appointment made her the first female head of a major auto company in history.

Barra ordered an internal investigation into the delay, which she made public upon its completion.  The investigation, headed by Anton Valukas,  found a pattern of incompetence and neglect, but no conspiracy to conceal the defect.

Barra and her executive team also oversaw an overhaul of GM's recall and international communications procedures to try to prevent a similar debacle in the future.   Company employees were urged to submit product safety concerns to their supervisors, and, if they were disatisfied with the results, to contact Barra directly.  The company created a new position to oversee global product safety.

Barra was called to testify before U.S. House and Senate subcommittees in the matter twice.  She told Congressional investigators GM is a changed company in response to the crisis.

Because most of the cars with defective switches were built before GM's 2009 bankruptcy, it is unclear whether the bankruptcy will shield GM from lawsuits filed by victims and families of victims. 

As a result, the automaker established a voluntary special compensation program, managed by Kenneth Feinberg, who also handled a compensation program in the BP oil spill and the 9/11 fund.  An accident resulting in a death will qualify for at least a $1,300,000 payment to the surviving spouse or family.

Since the initial ignition switch recall, GM has issued dozens more, recalling 26.7 million vehicles in the U.S. for various problems, including some additional ignition switch problems.  Globally, GM has recalled nearly 30 million vehicles.

The recalls appear not to have affected GM sales to any great degree.  Since February, GM sales have more or less kept pace with the U.S. industry average, sometimes exceeding it.

From its statement:

The Appeal of Conscience Foundation is proud to honor Mary T. Barra, a woman of integrity, an advocate of change and a corporate leader with a sense of social responsibility, who by deed and action has advanced human dignity and social justice, by encouraging a standard in which corporate America and global corporations accept responsibility.

Tracy Samilton covers energy and transportation, including the auto industry and the business response to climate change for Michigan Radio. She began her career at Michigan Radio as an intern, where she was promptly “bitten by the radio bug,” and never recovered.