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At a Senate hearing today, there were calls for General Motors top lawyer to step down. Recent media reports have made clear that company lawyers knew faulty ignition switches were causing fatal accidents. Despite that GM blocked internal efforts to issue a recall and they kept information from federal safety regulators. The ignition defect is responsible for at least 13 deaths and will cost GM billions of dollars. NPR's Sonari Glinton has the latest.
SONARI GLINTON, BYLINE: Congressional hearings have a sort of rhythm. At the very beginning things can be kind of light and almost friendly. Almost.
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SENATOR CLAIRE MCCASKIL: Thank you. If you could take your seats as quickly as possible. We are under a time constraint here which I know you hate to hear.
GLINTON: But the laughter fades quickly.
MCCASKIL: Today we revisit the tragic management failures at General Motors that killed people.
GLINTON: That's Missouri Democrat Claire McCaskill leading the latest inquest into GM. The main issue is ignition switches GM installed in more than 2 million vehicles. Here's Nevada Republican Dean Heller.
SENATOR DEAN HELLER: The ignition switch, which slipped from run to accessory with little more than a knee hitting the key or the car driving over a bump. The car's power shut off while it was being driven.
GLINTON: And if that happened and the car crashed, the airbags wouldn't go off. And that's what made these crashes so deadly. There's still many unanswered questions but one that was answered was who was responsible for the bad switch? GM or Delphi, the company that made the part? Here's Senator Heller questioning GM CEO Mary Barra.
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HELLER: Ms. Barra do you believe that Delphi (Unintelligible) any responsible for the 13 deaths?
MARY BARRA: We're the OEM, we're the, you know, the company that's responsible to integrate the parts into the vehicle. So, it's our responsibility.
GLINTON: Now with that cleared away lawmakers turn to the degree to which GM's legal department was involved. Lawyers had kept regulators and others in the company at bay. And documents show lawyers at GM were afraid of exposing the company to potential punitive damages. Here's Senator McCaskill and GM's top lawyer, Michael Millikin.
MCCASKIL: Were they aware that your lawyers were telling you this car was going to cause you punitive damages?
MICHAEL MILLIKIN: They were not.
MCCASKIL: OK. So, I don't get how you and Lucy Clark Dougherty still have your jobs. Can you explain that to me?
GLINTON: Millikin didn't get a chance to explain. The question was turned GM CEO Mary Barra.
MCCASKIL: This is either gross negligence or gross incompetence on the part of a lawyer. The notion that he can say, I didn't know.
BARRA: Senator McCaskill I respectfully disagree.
GLINTON: Connecticut Democrat Richard Blumenthal wants to know if GM is willing to waive attorney-client privilege or various confidentiality agreements in order to let the public in on the facts of the case?
CONGRESSMAN RICHARD BLUMENTHAL: Will you agree to recommend to Ms. Barra, GM unseal all of those settlements that could've saved lives, if they hadn't been kept secret? Will you make that recommendation?
MILLIKIN: No I will not, but those settlement documents...
BLUMENTHAL: Will you...
MILLIKIN: are with responsible government agencies who can look at them.
CARL TOBIAS: All of that is going to expose them to enormous liability. When juries hear that kind of information they've already admitted.
GLINTON: Carl Tobias is a professor with the University of Richmond's law school. He says whether GM is more open or not these hearings have already caused quite a bit of damage.
TOBIAS: There could be punitive damages and there could be criminal liability. So, this is not going to be something that's going to end very quickly.
GLINTON: GM will start making payments to victims and their families next month. Sonari Glinton, NPR News.
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