One of the most interesting things written about professional responsibility in 2014 is not a book or a law review article, but the report of an internal investigation. Anton Valukas, a former United States Attorney, now chair of the Chicago law firm Jenner & Block, was retained by the board of directors of General Motors to investigate the company’s inadequate response to reports of a serious defect in some of its cars. As extensively reported, a faulty ignition switch used in several G.M. cars, including the Chevrolet Cobalt and Saturn Ion, would sometimes fail in a way that both shut off the engine and disabled the car’s airbags. The switch departed from its intended design in a crucial respect – the torque was less than specified, so that if a driver inadvertently bumped into it, or if the keys hanging from the ignition switch were too heavy, the electrical system might change from “run” to “accessory” mode. As early as 2005, G.M. started to receive reports of crashes in which the car’s airbags failed to deploy. At first they did not suspect a problem, as there were other factors that might have caused the airbags to fail to deploy. It was also hard to track down the problem because the engineer who had approved the original, faulty switch also approved a change to the switch design that solved the problem, but did so in a way that obscured the original problem. But by about 2007, it was becoming clear that there might be a defect in the electrical system of certain car lines. Finally, in early 2014, G.M. publicly disclosed the defect, began recalling as many as 2.6 cars, and established a compensation fund for the victims of switch-related accidents.
What happened between 2007 and 2014? The long and short of it is, evidence of a possible defect was fed into the machinery of a cumbersome, bureaucratic process that churned on and on without moving toward a resolution. G.M. did not set about to cover up the problem. It has a byzantine structure of review programs, tracking systems, and cross-disciplinary committees that exists precisely to detect and rectify issues like the ignition switch defect. Customer satisfaction issues, which comes to the attention of G.M. personnel involved in marketing, are supposed to get directed to engineers for improvement, coded for whether the problems are a mere annoyance or a possible safety concern. Managers from divisions of products, systems, and safety engineering periodically met with business managers to work on solutions to safety problems and overcome roadblocks. Additional committees dealt with problems manifesting themselves in the field, and had contact with representatives from engineering, marketing, business, and legal teams. Reading the description of these procedures and protocols, one comes away with the impression of a company that takes its obligations to customers quite seriously, but in reality the redundancy and ambiguity inherent in the structure sapped the energy from the company’s response. With multiple committees dealing with various aspects of the same problem, no person or centralized team had responsibility for making sure something got done. CEO Mary Barra memorably testified before Congress about the “G.M. nod,” when everyone in the room agrees with a proposed plan of action, but no one does anything to make it happen, and the “G.M. salute,” which consists of crossed arms with fingers pointing toward others, to whom responsibility is being punted. The human cost of this dithering can be measured in the injuries and deaths that would have been prevented if prompt corrective action had been taken. Continue reading "Not Business as Usual for In-House Counsel"