WASHINGTON — General Motors’ top lawyer came under withering attack from senators Thursday at a hearing investigating the automaker’s failure to recall millions of defective small cars for more than a decade.
Senator Claire McCaskill, the Missouri Democrat who chairs the commerce subcommittee on consumer protection, wasted little time before questioning the actions of Michael P. Millikin, GM’s general counsel.
Noting that he had been warned several times of potential liability related to the defective switch, which GM has linked to 13 deaths, McCaskill expressed disbelief that he had not been dismissed.
“I don’t get how you and Lucy Clark Dougherty still have your jobs,” McCaskill said to Millikin, referring to GM’s general counsel for North America. “This is either gross negligence or gross incompetence on the part of a lawyer. The fact that he can say ‘I don’t know.’ ”
McCaskill turned to GM’s chief executive, Mary T. Barra, who also testified at the hearing, and asked her why he was not among those employees who have been dismissed.
“I respectfully disagree,” Barra said.
She added that Millikin is a person of “high integrity” and blamed systemic problems within the legal department. She said there were “very senior lawyers who had this information and didn’t bring it forward who are no longer with the company,” but that she did not intend to dismiss Millikin.
McCaskill said the company’s internal report should have been enough for GM to have already taken that action.
Millikin repeatedly stated that he first learned of the defect the first week of February.
“I wish I had known about it earlier, because I know I would have acted,” he said.
The company’s legal staff fought ignition lawsuits for years despite knowing that company engineers and investigators were aware of safety problems and related accidents. In her opening remarks, McCaskill said “the culture of lawyering up and Whac-A-Mole” at the Detroit automaker “killed innocent customers of General Motors.”
“The failure of this legal department is stunning,” McCaskill concluded.
Several senators also focused on how forthright GM was in its disclosures with the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. Referring to a report in The New York Times that GM refused to answer certain death investigation letters sent by the agency, Senator Barbara Boxer, a Democrat from California, said it showed that GM was trying to hide something.
“I consider it a cover-up when a manufacturer does not respond fully and accurately to NHTSA about what it knows about deaths in its vehicles,” she said. “This wasn’t some casual memo.”
Millikin said he did not know about the practice before this week, saying it was “news to me” when he read the report in The Times.
Barra told the panel that GM would not treat such inquiries that way today.