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GM ignition switch death toll likely to climb above 19 people

General Motors may have so far only acknowledged 13 driver deaths due to its multiple problems with ignition switches and air bags, but the independent compensation administrator hired by the company said today there are at least 19 deaths likely connected with those problems and he expects that number to increase.

Kenneth Feinberg, the compensation fund’s administrator, gave a progress report today on the number of claims filed so far against the Detroit automaker. More than 445 claims were filed in just the first six weeks of the program, 125 of them were for deaths. Another 58 claims were made for serious physical injury including loss of limbs, permanent brain damage or serious burns.

Most claims are still being evaluated and reviewed. No damage amounts were revealed yet and many of those claims determined eligible have not been paid yet. It is also not clear how many of the 13 deaths acknowledged by GM were included in the 19 death claims determined eligible so far.

The automaker has recalled more than 16 million vehicles so far for ignition-related problems, including 2.6 million for an ignition switch problem it has since acknowledged it knew about for a decade.

Feinberg told the PBS NewsHour today that of the 19 deaths he found eligible, it was clear that failing air bags related to ignition switch troubles was a common problem.

“What happens most frequently is that in looking at the photos, what becomes very obvious is you see there was a direct collision with another tree or automobile (or other object) and the photo shows the airbag did not deploy. It is very valuable evidence of ignition switch failure,” Feinberg said. “In some of these photos, the engine is in the back seat (from such impact) and the airbag clearly didn’t deploy. The engine is like an accordion, it gets pushed back into the back seat.”

Kenneth Feinberg appeared on the PBS NewsHour in June to discuss GM’s payout plan.

GM has only acknowledged so far 54 crashes have been directly related to the problem, which dates back more than 10 years.

Feinberg’s count of accidents is likely to be significantly higher and he gave an explanation for that today.

“We are using a much more lenient standard” than GM which has so far only linked deaths and accidents with those it says are definitively connected with ignition switch troubles, he said. “We require proximate cause: Is it substantially likely that the switch cause the accident — not definitive, but substantially likely? Secondly, GM was only looking at drivers. We are looking at drivers, passengers, pedestrians, occupants in a second vehicle. We also don’t even inquire into contributing causes, such as drinking, speeding, texting.”

The fund will pay at least $1 million for each death claim, plus $300,000 to surviving spouses and dependents along with additional amounts for the economic value of the life that was lost. GM has set aside $400 million so far for claims but the company and Feinberg have both said there are no caps on claims that Feinberg determines to be eligible.

In the next four to six weeks, more cases will be determined eligible and damage awards will start to be calculated for the dead and physically injured. Applications for claims are being accepted through the end of the year.

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