303 deaths may be linked to GM ignition recall [UPDATE]

This issue could surpass the 27 Ford Pinto fire deaths and the 271 fatalities blamed on the Ford Explorer/Firestone debacle

The General Motors ignition switch recall appears to be rapidly spiraling out of control. A new report analyzing federal crash data suggests that there weren't only 12 or 13 people killed after their GM vehicle's ignition inadvertently switched off, disabling the airbags. No, the new figure could be 303. And that's just on two of the six recalled models, the Chevrolet Cobalt and Saturn Ion, so the figure could grow.

The review of the crash data was done by Friedman Research Corporation, which looked at airbag failures in GM vehicles between 2003 and 2012 (despite reports of issues back in 2001). According to The New York Times, the review only looked at cases where the airbags failed to deploy – it didn't analyze the actual causes of the crashes.

Still, it's a troubling development, which if proven correct would mean this latest safety issue easily surpasses the 27 deaths attributed to Ford Pinto fires and the estimated 271 fatalities blamed on the Ford Explorer/Firestone tire debacle.

Meanwhile, Automotive News reports on trial lawyers smelling blood in the water. Litigators are looking to line up clients that have been affected by the recall, with one lawyer even saying he was planning to challenge post-bankruptcy GM's immunity to issues that happened before a federal bailout.

"If you are aware of potential exposure to litigation and you don't reveal it, that's fraud," said Bob Hilliard, a Texas-based lawyer representing the families of a pair of Wisconsin teens killed in a Cobalt crash in 2006. "I'm going to go back to that bankruptcy judge and say, 'You have to undo this, the liability of old GM, because it was the new GM's continued coverup after the bankruptcy that allowed people to be hurt or killed.'"

Automotive News spoke to Chip Bowles, a bankruptcy lawyer, about Hilliard's attempt to reopen the case and remove new GM's immunity. Bowles told the site Hilliard would need to prove that old GM willingly deceived US Bankruptcy Judge Robert Gerber.

Actually doing that, though, may prove very difficult, with Bowles adding, "Lots of luck there, friend."

UPDATE: There is concern that the study citing 303 attributable deaths may not represent an accurate calculation, because its findings were reportedly based in part on a database that does not discern between accidents in which the airbags were supposed to deploy and accidents in which they were not. We have a followup story with details on the growing controversy here.

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