General Motors Co is facing increasing pressure to compensate victims for an ignition defect that prompted the recall of 1.6 million vehicles, even if some would-be plaintiffs are barred from suing the auto maker under the terms of its emergence from bankruptcy in 2009.
GM is a different legal entity than the one that filed the 2009 bankruptcy that shook the U.S. economy. The so-called "new" GM is not responsible under the terms of its bankruptcy exit for any legal claims relating to incidents that took place before July 2009.
But with a massive recall on its hands and accusations the company knew of the defect for a decade, GM is facing pressure from consumer groups that say the arrangement would unfairly bar victims from getting the compensation they deserve.
On Wednesday, two prominent consumer advocacy groups called on GM Chief Executive Officer Mary Barra to create a $1 billion trust fund to pay victims.
"Don't you think in your heart of hearts that it is cruel and unfair to use those defenses to escape liability for a defect GM concealed and failed to remedy for 10 years?" Clarence Ditlow, executive director of the Center for Auto Safety, and Joan Claybrook, president emeritus of Public Citizen, stated in a letter they released to the public.
In a statement, GM did not rule out the possibility of setting up such a fund to compensate victims.
"We appreciate the concern expressed in the letter," the company said. "It is true that new GM did not assume liability for claims arising from incidents or accidents occurring prior to July 2009. Our principle throughout this process has been to put the customer first, and that will continue to guide us."
GM says the ignition switch has been connected to at least 34 crashes and 12 deaths. A study released Thursday night linking 303 deaths to the recalled cars was quickly criticized by GM.
Federal prosecutors, Congress, regulators and GM itself are all investigating why it took GM so long to recall affected cars, in light of documents that indicate the company may have received reports of a potential defect at least a decade ago.