Editorial: GM needs to do right for victims -- and for America

General Motors CEO Mary Barra testifies on fatally

General Motors CEO Mary Barra testifies on fatally faulty ignition switches Tuesday, April 1, 2014, before the House Energy and Commerce subcommittee on oversight and investigation. (Credit: AP / Evan Vucci)

General Motors did just about everything wrong before finally recalling 2.6 million vehicles with defective ignition switches linked to at least 13 fatal accidents.

Appallingly, there's evidence GM knew for a decade about the defect that caused the cars' engines to shut off while driving and disable their air bags, but failed to report or fix the problem.

The company replaced the faulty switches with an inadequate new version beginning in 2007. But it didn't change the model number on the new part, possibly obscuring the fact that a fix was necessary. That record prompted Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.), chairwoman of the subcommittee that heard from GM chief executive Mary Barra last week, to slam the company for a culture of cover-up. Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), a former state attorney general, said GM could be criminally liable for concealing the deadly defect. The Justice Department is investigating.

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But now the company has the chance to do something right. It should create a compensation fund to pay damages to the families of people killed and those injured due to the defect. GM is legally off the hook for some damages. Bankruptcy absolved it of liability for accidents that occurred before it emerged from reorganization in July 2009. But GM shouldn't hide behind that legal shield. It owes the public better. An infusion of $49.5 billion from the federal government in loans and stock purchases saved it from liquidation. The government sold the last of its GM shares in December, at a total loss of $10.5 billion. The bailout gave GM new life. Compensating victims of the ignition defect would be an important step toward redeeming itself as a good corporate citizen.

GM hasn't committed to providing compensation, but Barra said the company has hired Kenneth Feinberg, who handled victim compensation claims after 9/11 and the BP oil spill, to explore that possibility.

That's a good sign that GM may do what's right.

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