GM CEO says did not know details of defective cars until late January

By Features Reuters

General Motors Co Chief Executive Mary Barra said on Tuesday that she did not learn details about defective GM cars linked to 12 deaths until January 31, just two weeks after she took over as CEO and nearly 13 years after GM engineers first documented problems.

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The automaker last month recalled 1.6 million cars from 2003 to 2007 to replace faulty ignition switches that could cause the engine to shut down and turn off the airbags. The first death linked to the defect occurred in Maryland in July 2005.

"I am very sorry for the loss of life that has occurred," Barra said at a roundtable meeting with reporters on Tuesday.

She said she learned in late December, when she was still head of GM's global product development organization, that there was a review of the Chevrolet Cobalt, one of the cars subsequently involved in the recall. She added she was not told the details of the review at that time.

"Clearly, this took too long," she said of the lengthy internal engineering probe of the defective switches, which GM first learned about in 2001 and initially addressed in dealer service bulletins in 2005.

The first replacement switches will be available for customers on April 7, and the current plan is that GM should have enough parts for every recalled car by "the October time frame," Barra said.

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Another GM executive, Mark Reuss, said at Tuesday's roundtable meeting that he called Barra in late January after GM executives decided to recall the Cobalt and other models with the defective switches. Reuss, who was president of GM North America, succeeded Barra in mid-January as global product development chief.

Both Barra and Reuss said they had never heard of the issue during their earlier jobs with GM before it came up in January.

Barra said she is prepared to testify about the recall at U.S. congressional hearings in Washington. She also emphasized that there are "no sacred cows" in the company's internal investigation.

She declined to address directly questions about whether GM plans to set up a trust fund for crash victims. Some safety advocates have urged the company to establish a $1 billion trust fund to take care of those affected.

Barra also said GM has not contacted families of the 12 victims, preferring to wait until the company's internal probe is completed. But she promised the company would take action as it learned anything during the probe.

"Until the investigation is done, I won't know who knew what when," Barra said, adding that no executive had been disciplined or fired related to the defective ignition switches.

Barra said she was not aware if GM had forwarded any information to the U.S. Department of Justice, which has opened a criminal probe of the automaker. She added that senior executives meet daily or talk by telephone about the recall.

Barra said her goals are twofold: "To repair every single one of these vehicles," and "to make sure this problem never happens again."

As part of that effort, GM earlier on Tuesday named a 40-year company veteran to the new position of vehicle safety chief. Jeff Boyer, 58, has the mission "to quickly identify and resolve product safety issues," including handling recalls, GM said.

Barra said Boyer had "complete authority" to make changes in the safety and recall process.

On Monday, GM announced three more recalls affecting another 1.75 million newer-model vehicles for unrelated issues, saying the impact of the defective ignition switches had sped up the company's recall process.

GM shares were up 1.2 percent at $35.06 on Tuesday afternoon. Last week, the shares fell about 10 percent.

(Editing by Matthew Lewis)