DETROIT (AP) — General Motors has suspended two engineers in the first disciplinary action stemming from its mishandled recall of more than 2 million small cars for a deadly ignition switch problem. But the company also said a second ignition part in the cars must be fixed, boosting first-quarter recall costs above $1 billion.
The suspensions, with pay, come from GM's own investigation into the recall. CEO Mary Barra promised Congress last week that she'd take action when appropriate, as lawmakers alleged that at least one company engineer tried to cover up the switch problem.
In a statement Thursday, Barra called the action an "interim step." Management and legal experts said paid leave is likely the first step in a process that could lead to firing or early retirement. But it also means that GM probably doesn't know yet if the engineers acted on their own or followed orders from a superior.
GM says at least 13 people have been killed in crashes linked to the defective switch, but family members of those who died say the death toll is much higher.
The company would not identify the suspended employees, but in congressional hearings last week, lawmakers produced memos singling out ignition switch engineer Ray DeGiorgio. Attempts to reach DeGiorgio were unsuccessful.
GM is recalling 2.6 million compact cars worldwide, mostly Chevrolet Cobalts and Saturn Ions, to replace the switches. On Thursday, it announced that dealers would also replace the ignition lock cylinders on the same cars because drivers can remove the key while the engine is still running. That could lead to a rollaway or crash. GM said it knows of one related injury.
In the past two months, GM has announced recalls covering a total of 6.3 million vehicles for a number of issues. The estimated cost has now grown to $1.3 billion from $300 million initially.
In addition to Congress, the Justice Department and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration are investigating GM's slow response to the ignition problem.
Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., last week accused DeGiorgio of trying to cover up the switch problem. DeGiorgio said in a deposition last year for a lawsuit against GM that he never approved a change to the ignition switch. McCaskill produced a document from 2006 showing he signed off on a replacement, but with the same part number. Failing to change a part number makes the part harder to track.
Lawmakers were also critical of a decision made within GM's engineering ranks to not fix the switch because it would be too costly and time-consuming.
During the hearing, Barra called the failure to change the part number "unacceptable." She also said if inappropriate decisions were made, GM would take action, including firing those involved.