After GM Disaster, Nader & Groups Call for Criminal Liability for Hiding Product Dangers

News Release

For Immediate Release: Tuesday, April 8, 2014
For More Information Contact: Gary Ruskin (202) 387-8030

After GM Disaster, Nader & Groups Call for Criminal Liability for Hiding Product Dangers

In an effort to prevent deadly product safety disasters – such as the GM ignition switch failure — Ralph Nader, the Center for Progressive Reform and the Center for Corporate Policy called for enacting long-overdue criminal liability for product supervisors who know their products are dangerous or deadly, yet fail to tell federal regulators of these dangers.

Nader and the groups sent the letters today to the chairs and ranking members of the House and Senate Judiciary Committees, asking them to support legislation to require product supervisors to warn regulators and the public within fifteen days after a product danger is discovered, or immediately if there is an imminent risk of serious bodily injury or death.

The text of the letters follows.

Dear Senators Leahy and Grassley, and Representatives Goodlatte and Conyers:

This letter is a request that you introduce legislation to address fatal failures such as those by General Motors to warn the public and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) in timely fashion about ignition switch failures in its Cobalts and other GM models.  Such legislation is badly needed to ensure that such failures – and the deaths that come with them — do not happen again.

On February 13, 2014, General Motors announced a recall of about 778,000 of its cars due to an ignition switch failure.  That recall has now been expanded to nearly 2.5 million cars.[1]  At this time, the failure of the General Motors ignition systems is implicated in 303 deaths.[2]

Revealingly, nearly ten years before this recall, in November 2004, General Motors initiated an engineering inquiry to examine whether a 2005 Chevrolet Cobalt “can be keyed off with knee while driving.” In March, 2005 the Cobalt Project Engineering Manager closed this inquiry “with no action” because the “lead-time for all solutions is too long,” and the “tooling cost and piece price are too high” and that “[n]one of the solutions seems to fully countermeasure the possibility of the key being turned (ignition turned off) during driving.”  The Project Engineering Manager’s “directive” concludes that “none of the solutions represent an acceptable business case.”[3]

It is clear that this tragedy was mostly preventable if General Motors had properly warned NHTSA and the public at the outset of its documented suspicion of an engineering defect in its cars.

Several Members of Congress propose remedies for General Motors’ failure to warn NHTSA in timely fashion.  For example, Senators Edward Markey and Richard Blumenthal have introduced legislation requiring auto companies to provide NHTSA with key safety-related documents related to fatal auto crashes, including certain internal safety documents, insurance claims made against them, and information pertaining to lawsuits against them related to the crashes.[4]  The legislation would also require NHTSA to make this available to the public via the Internet.  Representative Henry Waxman has introduced legislation to require auto manufacturers to disclose additional information about fatal crashes, NHTSA to provide public notice of inspection and investigation activities, and auto manufacturers to have a U.S.-based senior executive certify the accuracy and completeness of responses to NHTSA’s requests pursuant to safety investigations.[5]

These approaches have merit within the context of auto safety, but they are inadequate because they address merely a narrow segment of the broader scope of the problem.  Thus far, Members of Congress and the media have largely viewed this General Motors ignition switch defect as a matter of auto safety.  Of course, it is that.  But it is so much more.

The General Motors ignition switch defect is the latest example of a grievous tradition in the history of multinational corporations: the failure to warn U.S. regulators of deadly product defects. This tradition includes, among many other tragedies, the Dalkon Shield, Ford Firestone tires, cigarettes, asbestos, Guidant heart defibrillators, Bayer’s Trasylol, Ford Pintos and Playtex Super-absorbent tampons, to name a few.  In March, an FBI investigation revealed that Toyota misled the public about one cause of unintended acceleration in some of its cars, and tried to hide a second cause from NHTSA.

This is the correct context in which to place the current General Motors ignition switch defect.

The failure to warn is a problem that potentially afflicts most manufacturers, not merely the auto industry.  Only a systematic solution will fix this systematic problem.  A good solution must be broad in scope.  The best solution lies in establishing incentives to strongly predispose corporate officials to promptly disclose product dangers to regulators and the public.

In the 111th Congress, Rep. John Conyers introduced the Dangerous Products Warning Act,[6] which would require companies to warn employees, consumers and the appropriate federal regulators of any product or service that poses a serious danger to the public. The legislation would create criminal liability for product supervisors who knew of serious dangers but failed to warn federal regulators or affected parties.  Under this legislation, such warnings must be made within fifteen days after such discovery is made, or immediately if there is an imminent risk of serious bodily injury or death.

Such legislation would have saved countless American lives and prevented many injuries during the last fifty years, probably including those who died or were injured from the General Motors ignition switch defect.

We strongly urge you to introduce the Dangerous Products Warning Act in the 113th Congress, and to work diligently for its passage.


Ralph Nader
Rena Steinzor, President, Center for Progressive Reform
Gary Ruskin, Director, Center for Corporate Policy

Nader and the groups sent the letters to Senator Pat Leahy, chairman of the Senate Committee on the Judiciary; Senator Chuck Grassley, ranking member of the Senate Committee on the Judiciary; Representative Bob Goodlatte

The full text of the letters is available at:


[1] Christopher Jensen, “G.M. Recall Total in 2014 Reaches 4.8 Million.”  New York Times, March 29, 2014.

[2] Danielle Ivory and Hilary Stout, “303 Deaths Seen in G.M. Cars With Failed Air Bags.”  New York Times, March 13, 2014.

[3] Majority staff, House Committee on Energy and Commerce, “Hearing on ‘The GM Ignition Switch Recall: Why Did It Take So Long?’” March 30, 2014.

[4] S. 2151, the Early Warning Reporting System Improvements Act of 2014.

[5] H.R. 4364, the Motor Vehicle Safety Act of 2014.

[6] H.R. 6544.  It was re-introduced in the 112th Congress as H.R. 322.  See also Matthew L. Wald, “Spurred by G.M. Recall, Senators Push for Better Auto Safety Reporting.”  New York Times, March 25, 2014.