General Motors said Thursday it had put two engineers on paid leave as it investigates its recall of millions of vehicles over a decade-old ignition defect linked to 13 deaths.
GM chief executive Mary Barra announced the first disciplinary personnel action stemming from the company’s internal probe of the circumstances leading to the delayed recall of 2.6 million older model cars to fix the problem.
“This is an interim step as we seek the truth about what happened,” Barra said in a statement.
“It was a difficult decision, but I believe it is best for GM,” she said, adding that action was taken following a briefing from Anton Valukas, the former US attorney hired by the company to oversee a probe of why it took so long for the company to recall the vehicles.
GM did not identify the two engineers.
The ignition problem was detected at the pre-production stage as early as 2001, but the largest US automaker waited until February this year to begin recalling the affected vehicles.
The faulty ignitions can abruptly switch into “accessory” or “off” position while in drive, especially when the car is jolted.
That can turn off its electrical systems, including safety airbags, preventing them from inflating in a collision.
The recall is the first big crisis for Barra, who took the company’s helm on January 15 as the first woman to lead a major automaker.
Barra has responded forcefully, apologizing for the “terrible things” that happened after “something went wrong with our process” and vowing to make sure such mistakes would not happen again.
On Thursday, she also announced a new GM program — “Speak Up for Safety” — to recognize employees for ideas that make vehicles safer, and for speaking up when they see something that could impact customer safety.
“GM must embrace a culture where safety and quality come first,” Barra said.
GM shares were up 0.2 percent at $33.69 in morning trade on the New York Stock Exchange.
Last week, the GM CEO faced two days of grilling in Congress over the delayed recall, with lawmakers expressing amazement that no heads had rolled when engineers knew about the defect long ago.
Lawmakers in particular focused on Ray DeGiorgio, the chief engineer for the ignition switch on the Chevrolet Cobalt, one of the cars affected.
In February and March, GM recalled a combined 2.6 million Chevrolet Cobalts, Saturn Ions and other models fitted with the defective switches.
The company faces a Justice Department probe, lawsuits tied to the faulty ignitions, and potentially billions of dollars in penalties and damages.
On Tuesday, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, which is investigating whether GM followed requirements for timely recall of defective vehicles, fined GM for failing to respond to a request for information by an April 3 deadline.
The NHTSA said GM may be fined up to $7,000 per day for each day it fails to provide the information, up to a maximum civil penalty of $35 million.