They (documents) provide details for the first time on the issue at the heart of a criminal investigation by the Justice Department: whether G.M., in its interaction with safety regulators, obscured a deadly defect that would also injure perhaps hundreds of people.
The company repeatedly found a way not to answer the simple question from regulators of what led to a crash. In at least three cases of fatal crashes, including the accident that killed Mr. Erickson, G.M. said that it had not assessed the cause. In another fatal crash, G.M. said that attorney-client privilege may have prevented it from answering. And in other cases, the automaker was more blunt, writing, “G.M. opts not to respond.” The responses came even though G.M. had for years been aware of sudden power loss in the models involved in the accidents.
“It seems inconsistent,” said Carl Tobias, a law professor at the University of Richmond, who specializes in product liability. “It seems like the company knew that the accident was attributable to power loss. It does sound like they didn’t give N.H.T.S.A. everything they should have. That could make them vulnerable to the Justice Department’s investigation.”
In the end, both G.M. and those charged with overseeing the company fell short in protecting the public, Mr. Tobias, the law professor, said. “It’s discouraging to see that both the company was not being as straightforward as it might have been,” he said, “and that N.H.T.S.A. was not being as rigorous about these inquiries that it should have been.”