The GM Recall: The pain of grieving relatives

BARODA, Mich. – Peeling the onion off of a major automotive recall is exceptionally messy business. There are times when it is not easy to pick out the good guys ...except the grieving.

That point was driven home by Pam Harding, the desperately sad mother of Joseph Harding Jr. of Baroda, Michigan.

Pam sobbed into a Local 4, "How many families have to lose their loved ones and suffer because of this ya know. It's not right! I'm sorry but it is not right!"

Her 19-year-old son died on Sept.,13, 2008. The airbags did not go off in the 2006 Chevy Cobalt SS he borrowed from a friend of his on a late night fast food run with his friend Zachary Shoenbach that ended in a gruesome crash.

Together, they slammed into a massive tree on the side of rain slicked Stevensville-Baroda Road.

Zach was not wearing his seat belt, Joe did but they both still died. Joe's body was not initially identifiable because his face hit the windshield so hard he broke his neck. The windshield was completely smashed. 

The medical examiner said the severely broken neck caused Joe's death. Zack's body was so badly mangled his leg was sticking through the floor board and paramedics had to amputate it to get him out and to a hospital. He died of his injuries there. The lack of an airbag deployment has always perplexed Pam Harding "my mom hit a deer at 45 miles per hour and the airbags went off but you hit a tree and it's not going to come out?" It's a perfectly logical question and right now you may be thinking GM is the bad guy here.

Well, here is where the "few good guys" notion comes in. Based on the information retrieved out of the Cobalt's "black box" that had to be pried from the mangled Cobalt wreckage with the Jaws of Life the day after the accident, Joe was driving 87 miles per hour when he slammed into the tree. The police report says the car went airborne at 3am, in the rain, and while 19 year old Zach was not legally drunk with tests showing a .07 blood alcohol content, Joe was .12 and legally drunk.

It's illegal for both these two young men to have been drinking at all. And the final unsavory fact is Joe did not have a driver's license. It was not like being without a driver's license because he left it at home. No, he never went down to the registry and passed the test. All of a sudden it is difficult to know who is to blame. Is it a heartless car company only interested in profit or a reckless teen who didn't belong behind the wheel willing to put his and his friend's life in danger for a burger and a little "buzzed" driving at twice the speed limit? This is why we have courts and judges and why the recall industry [and it is one!] is such high stakes poker.

Sadly, as we start breaking down the deaths in this ignition switch recall we are learning the circumstances around these accidents are strikingly similar. Drunk driving by young drivers in small cars is becoming a common denominator on more than a couple of these ignition switch recall accidents. For its part General Motors had to know all of this and early on.

The police report shows a GM private investigator picked up the police report, pictures and black box data on this accident October 6, 2008 a mere three weeks after the grisly crash. This is normal. GM engineers looking at this stuff were looking for a mechanical common denominator and in fact the drunk driving may have played a part in not the company not taking more seriously the problems cheap ignition switches and non-deploying airbags were creating. What we know now is the kids who drove drunk in dangerous cars were wrong, but they didn't deserve to die for the lack of a decent ignition switch. GM openly admits it made serious mistakes in this process and is committed to owning the problem and the fix. This will take time and money, something GM has now in abundance thanks to the bailout and the culture shift that stopped building such "crappy cars" [to quote GM CEO Mary Barra].

Ultimately, the only good guys here appear to be those who sob at night grieving their loss. Pam Harding has spent the last six years trying to put her son's death behind her. She can't. She did not know her son died until the next day when they sorted out the confusion over who had died. The police thought the car's owner was the one behind the wheel. He wasn't. He was asleep in Joe's bed.

A nurse who said she knew the car's owner misidentified the body. That was a drama that Pat will never forget because she was the one who figured out there was a dead boy and the one everyone thought was dead was alive and well in her house. Her daughter spared her having to go to the morgue. So bereaved was Pam she never looked at the police report, she couldn't bring herself to do that. She never once thought to get in touch with GM. She went about the business of buying a burial plot and a headstone for Joe.

Yet, she decided if she buried his ashes there she would only be saying goodbye for good. Through tears of combined sadness and anger she said "I'll never let him go. He sits up there on my dresser. It's where he sits because I can let go of him." Indeed Joe's ashes remain in a black plastic container and reside in her bedroom. Pam never bargained for the pain of these re-opened wounds. She never really recovered from Joe's death in the first place. A relapse is as unwelcome as a news reporter and camera. She says she doesn't know if she will get involved with the GM lawsuits "right now I'm overwhelmed" she cried… "It's not gonna help. How's it going to help me? The pain's still there, the hurt is still there. It's not gonna go away you know. It's not gonna bring my son back. They'll never bring my son back."

GM won't directly respond to this situation. It promises a thorough investigation now. The PR people stress Mary Barra apologized to families in Washington, D.C. last night and intends to make this all right. Her testimony today was less than awe inspiring but then again it was an unbelievably unfriendly environment and it is an extraordinarily tall order to rebrand this company.  All that is left is the pain, the sadness and the tears.

About the Author:

Rod Meloni is an Emmy Award-winning Business Editor on Local 4 News and a Certified Financial Planner™ Professional.