GM legal dept. under fire in hearing

By Burton Speakman


Much of the criticism during Thursday’s Senate hearing on the General Motors ignition-switch recall focused on the actions of the legal department.

Members questioned how GM general counsel Mike Millikin could not know about the issues with the ignition switch when there were those within his department who knew about the problem years ago. Millikin was part of a group that testified in front of the U.S. Senate Commerce subcommittee on consumer protection.

Millikin testified that he first learned about the issue with the ignition switch in February of this year.

“I don’t understand how Mike Millikin was able to keep his job,” said Claire McCaskill, D-Mo. McCaskill wasn’t the only subcommittee member to question Millikin’s continued employment.

The culture of “lawyering up” and trying to minimize liability in individual cases in the legal system resulted in GM customers dying, she said.

General Motors has fired 15 employees, including some in the legal department, said CEO Mary Barra. Some were fired for misconduct or incompetence, others were fired for not acting quickly enough when they learned of problems.

However, she added she “respectfully disagreed” with the contention that Millikin should be fired.

Barra added that she needs the right type of team around her to help in changing the culture of the company and that Millikin “has tremendous worldwide legal experience.”

The goal for the company is for something like this to not happen again, she said.

“Our employees will not forget what led to the ignition-switch recall, but they don’t want to be defined by it,” Barra said.

Millikin added under questioning that those who were fired did receive financial payments and retirement benefits upon being removed from their positions.

Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., stated he believed that some within the GM legal department actually helped cover up issues with the part and were guilty of misconduct.

Millikin admitted there were issues in the legal department, and things that should have been reported to him were not.

“We’ve now created a protocol that I have to view any settlement in an incident that results in death or serious injury,” Millikin said.

There also were several subcommittee members who questioned Millikin about the fact that GM refused to answer questions about ignition-switch problems that were posed by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

Millikin said he was not sure who if anyone from the legal department reviewed the answers that were sent to the NHTSA before GM’s reorganizing.

The NHTSA will have its own hearing before the subcommittee to answer questions about why it didn’t push GM more aggressively about the complaints.

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