When Mary Barra took office as General Motors' chief executive on January 15, she could hardly have imagined that the company's future would soon hinge for the second time in five years on decisions in New York's bankruptcy court.
But in the next few weeks Judge Robert Gerber, who steered GM through a government-managed bankruptcy in 2009, is once again likely to make decisions critical to the company's future in his Manhattan court.
One of his critical judgments will be whether General Motors' managers during its 2009 bankruptcy covered up knowledge of the safety problems that led in February and March this year to recalls of 2.6m compact cars worldwide. Politicians have expressed incredulity that Ms Barra herself, in her former job as head of GM's product development, was unaware of the gravity of the problems.
A ruling that the company deliberately hid the problems' seriousness could allow plaintiffs to sue the new, post-bankruptcy GM for their losses. The company—where Ms Barra was expected to mark a decisive break with the past—could then find itself bogged down still more deeply in its past mistakes.
Yet, as GM prepares to announce first-quarter results on Thursday, it is not clear whether conspiracy or incompetence were to blame for the problems' mishandling.
"The question is: who knew what, when, and what did they do with that information?" says Carl Tobias, law professor at the University of Richmond in Virginia.
There is no dispute that in 2001, as they rushed to bring to market a series of low-cost compact cars, General Motors engineers recognised the vehicles' ignition switches were vulnerable to shifting from "run" to "accessory" while being driven, cutting off the engine.