Nightly News   |  March 13, 2014

Exclusive: Why GM Didn’t Immediately Fix Ignition Switch Problem

General Motors is under new scrutiny after telling federal regulators that problems with its cars surfaced earlier than first thought.

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>>> we are back now with our nbc news exclusive, general motors is under new scrutiny after telling federal regulators that problems with some of its cars linked to deaths surfaced earlier than first thought. tonight, a look into why gm did not implement at least a partial fix nearly a decade ago. gabe gutierrez has more from general motors headquarters.

>> reporter: lester, we're talking about chevys and pontiac g 5's. according to hundreds of pages of court documents and video depositions of gm engineers, general motors developed a partial fix to the ignition switch problem back in 2005 and decided not to announce to owners that it was available. general motors is now acknowled acknowledging that a potential problem with its ignition switches first surfaced in 2001 , that is three years earlier than previously reported. video depositions obtained by nbc news show that nearly nine years ago gm engineers proposed a limited solution to make sudden ignition shut-off less likely, a problem that gm now acknowledges is linked to at least 12 deaths. the testimony also shows that other gm officials made a business decision not to spend what a plaintiff's expert has described as about a dollar per car on what they called only a partial fix.

>> they knew how to fix the problem or substantially reduce the problem and solely for cost reasons chose not to reduce the problem.

>> reporter: that is lance cooper, a georgia attorney who sued and settled with gm on behalf of the family of brooke melton, a person who died in 2010 on her birthday.

>> i just can't think this is happening on her birthday.

>> reporter: according to the information, her ignition shut off, turning off the power system, and locked her brakes.

>> she went across two lanes of traffic and was hit in the side by another car.

>> reporter: this is the type of car key at issue. gm says in its recall that weight, like a heavy dangling key chain , can cause it to move. see that large opening? in 2005 , gm engineers proposed redesigning the key to replace this slot with a hole. gm says this design was initially approved but later cancelled. instead, the company ordered these inserts for any customer who came into a dealership complaining of an ignition problem. only 474 inserts were handed out. lawyers at this deposition last june asked gary altman the programming manager for chevy cobalt why.

>> it made the decision not to fix this problem and five months later sold her the vehicle with the problem.

>> object to form, argumentative.

>> that is what happened, yes.

>> reporter: altman , who is still with gm, went on to say the reason why gm decided not to make the change with the key said it could not 100% fix the problem. altman said he did not agree that the car was still unsafe.

>> the car could be moved to the side of the road .

>> reporter: we found him at his home. you mentioned something about a business decision and that you were the one that rejected it. and asked him to clarify his testify. why did it take so long for these recalls to happen?

>> i can't answer that question.

>> reporter: a high level executive told me gm is deeply troubled with some decisions that were made.

>> one single death is enough to make a recall.

>> reporter: the justice department is also looking into whether gm may have broken a federal law that requires car makers to report problems to the government promptly. congress is also planning hearings, and lester, while gm officially declined to comment on camera about our investigation, the gm officials made it clear that they are cooperating fulling with federal regulators?

>> gabe gutierrez tonight, thank you.