Complaints Mount Against GM
With the number of complaints about defective anti-lock brakes in General Motors best-selling sport utility vehicles now over 8,400, an automotive forensic expert will shortly testify in an insurance case that bits of metal and other debris left inside the systems from the manufacturing process are responsible for the alleged problems.The expert, Forrest Folck, a veteran mechanic and community college-level teacher of automotive technology from San Diego, California, will testify at a trial set to begin next week in Los Angeles. The trial pits the Mercury Insurance Group of Brea, California, against General Motors and VarityKelsey-Hayes, the brake system manufacturer, on behalf of two drivers who claim that when they attempted to stop, the brake pedal dropped to the floor, and they could not avoid a collision. According to sources close to the case, six drivers insured by Mercury had such accidents, and three injuries resulted. The vehicles involved were five Chevrolet Suburbans and one Blazer. The cases are typical of the complaints on file with the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA). In response to a request from SIS, that agency said that as of the end of March it had received a record 8,410 complaints about brake problems with 1991-1994 GMC and Chevrolet S-10 pick-upÕs, Bravadas, Sonomas, Blazers and JimmyÕs, and 1992 through 1995 GMC Suburbans. A spokesman could recall no other instance in which the agency has received more complaints about an alleged defect.The complaints also allege that one fatality, 576 injuries, and 2,195 accidents were caused by the improperly functioning brakes.SIS has previously reported that a review of the NHTSA microfiche complaint file showed that driver after driver told the agency, in virtually the same words, that the brake pedal had fallen to the floor and left them without stopping ability. The incidents generally occurred not in emergencies, but rather in routine driving situations, and without warning.A spokesman for General Motors, Kyle Johnson, did not respond to a request for comment about the Mercury case or the growing number of complaints. Previously, however, the company has said it is cooperating fully in the investigation, and that the brakes are safe.In addition to the Los Angeles case, a much broader class action lawsuit is also pending against GM and VarityKelsey-Hayes. That lawsuit, which actually consolidates more than a half-dozen class actions in Federal District Court in St. Louis, charges the two corporations with fraud, negligence, breach of warranty, and a cover-up of dangerous defects in more than 2.2 million vehicles sold since 1990. Both companies have denied the allegations.GM Blames DriversAccording to Brian Hufford, one of the plaintiffsÕ attorneys, District Court Judge John F. Nangle is currently considering General MotorsÕ motion to dismiss the action. The filing of such motions is routine in such cases. The GM spokesman did not respond to questions about the status of the class action, either. According to Hufford, General Motors argues in its motion that the alleged problems are the result of drivers being ignorant of the way the anti-lock brake system operates. The company has consistently maintained that drivers make the mistake of lifting their foot and trying to pump the brakes, rather than keeping their foot pressed down to make the brakes work effectively.Further, it tells new buyers in a video they receive after purchase that it is normal for the brake pedal to drop to the floor, and that if a driver simply keeps applying pressure, the vehicle will stop. The video urges drivers to position the seat closely enough so that they can keep their foot pressed down, which would put short people closer to the steering wheel than is now recommended to avoid an injury from an air bag deployment.General Motors insists that the braking systems are safe. Its marketing of the sport utility vehicles, in fact, emphasizes their overall safety and reliability with the slogans, "Like a Rock," and "The Car More Americans Trust."In a written response to questions from SIS, NHTSA said it is still investigating the complaints and conducting field tests in an attempt to find a possible cause for the reported problems. However, Clarence Ditlow, executive director of the Center for Auto Safety, an advocacy organization based in Washington D.C., said his sources say a decision on whether to order a recall is expected by mid-June.Microscopic Inspection of the Brake SystemsFolck will be testifying in the Mercury case as an expert witness on the side of the insurance company. He has already given a sworn deposition in the case. In an interview with SIS, he said he had cut open with a lathe and microscopically inspected six VarityKelsey-Hayes four-wheel anti-lock systems that are of the same design as those involved in the accidents."I have looked at other ABS units and I have never been alarmed like this," he told SIS. "IÕm alarmed because I see contamination and rust, metal bits floating around inside the units. It appears some of the failures are from this contamination." Folck explained that bits of metal or rust floating in the fluid could intermittently get between the ball of the valve and the seat against which it should form a tight seal. If the seal is not tight, the fluid would leak internally, "the brake pedal drops, and you have no brakes," he said. Inspecting the unit from the outside, without cutting it open, would not show evidence of the leak, he added. One of the mysterious aspects of the brake failure complaints has been that the brakes work properly immediately after the alleged failures. Folck said this is possible because as soon as the vehicle is turned off and on, a "proofing cycle" is initiated that pulls the ball back and flushes the seat with fluid, clearing it of the interfering particles. Pat Fitzgerald, a spokesman for VarityKelsey-Hayes, called Folck a "bogus expert" who has no college degree and no engineering degree, and said his findings "have no substance" because they are not based on the brake systems in the actual vehicles involved in the accidents.Folck counters that he has been doing forensic investigations of auto accidents for insurance companies and law enforcement agencies for 15 years and has testified in both state and federal courts. In addition, he retired two years ago from a 21-year carrier teaching automotive technology at the community college level. He also said that the one of the two vehicles at issue in the upcoming trial is not available, and that efforts are being made to obtain the other and subject it to inspection.Has the GM Story Been Ignored by the Media?NHTSA has been investigating problems with the GM braking systems since October, 1994. Despite the record number of complaints, the problems have received very little coverage by the news media, and what little coverage has occurred has been spotty and incomplete. An Arnold Diaz report on ABCÕs 20/20 news show spoke generally about problems with ABS systems, but did not mention any brand names, the existence of the NHTSA investigation of GMÕs anti-lock brake systems, or the class action lawsuits against GM, a copy of which had been provided to 20/20 by Hufford, the attorney.A major exception to the general suppression of the story was the TV news magazine show, "Inside Edition," which aired its first report on the subject last November. According to producer Karl Idsvoog, the show received more than 1,000 phone calls in the 24 hours following the report, a greater response than any other segment ever aired by Inside Edition.Among these calls, which the showÕs staff organized into a data base, were 38 regarding the Chevy Astro minivan, or its twin, the GMC Safari. These vehicles have the same model braking system as the Blazers and Suburbans, according to Folck.In response to a question from SIS, NHTSA said that "in the event that a safety-related defect trend is found in the current investigations all vehicles which share these components would be examined to determine if they are affected and should be part of any corrective action taken by the manufacturer."DISCLOSURE: The author began investigating the possibility of a defect in the GM anti-lock brakes after her husband experienced brake failure with the familyÕs 1995 Chevrolet Tahoe, resulting in an injury to the driver of another car, the total loss of that other vehicle, and $4,000 damage to the Tahoe.