Responding to outcry from families and friends of people killed in defective General Motors cars, the National Women’s History Museum has withdrawn one of its highest honors from GM CEO Mary Barra. Cancellation of the award, bestowed on women who have shattered glass ceilings and undermined gender stereotypes, comes as GM’s list of death claims linked to a defective ignition switch tops 200 people.
“She will not be receiving the award at this time,” said Susan Murphy, spokeswoman for the National Women’s History Museum, which is sponsoring Monday’s De Pizan Honors in Washington D.C. “We haven’t ruled out giving her the award in the future.”
General Motors said late Wednesday that Barra, the first woman to head an automotive company, would not attend Monday’s honors “out of respect for National Women’s History Museum and the honorees.” The announcement came hours after family and friends of crash victims sent a letter about the poorly designed ignition switches to six congressional members who co-chair the awards.
“While we recognize that Mrs. Barra is the first woman to be named CEO of an American auto company, her first year in this position is only credited with one record so far – a record number of vehicle safety recalls connected to nearly 30 deaths and thousands of injuries,” the group wrote in a letter signed by Laura Christian, the 43-year-old Maryland mother of Amber Marie Rose. Rose died in 2005 after her new Chevy Cobalt crashed and the air bag failed to deploy. The accident was the first death tied to the ignition switch.
Barra, who has worked for GM since 1980, ascended to GM’s top office in January just as her company was preparing to announce a major recall of 1.62 million older GM cars containing the fatal ignition switch flaw. In March, GM expanded the number of affected vehicles to 2.59 million and later set up a $400 million internal compensation fund after a series of damming revelations showed GM engineers were aware of a problem dating back a decade.
The recall controversy sparked Barra to implement a cautious and comprehensive review of all GM vehicles, which has led to 77 safety recalls in the first 10 months of the year, totaling 30 million cars in North America. GM is responsible for about half of the record 50 million vehicles that have been recalled in the United States so far this year.
Complicating some ignition-switch claims is GM’s so-called bankruptcy shield in which the company was absolved of all liabilities prior to its July 10, 2009, emergence from a whirlwind 40-day government administered bankruptcy. GM has settled some claims of accidents that occurred prior to this date out of court, but has not ruled out invoking the shield if any of those claims wind up in a court battle.
In August, GM began accepting claims from its own fund and will continue to accept claims until the end of the year. The company currently recognizes 32 deaths, five serious life-altering injuries (such as paralysis or permanent brain damage) and 30 injuries that required hospitalization or outpatient care within 48 hours of the accident. But as of Friday, the number of people claiming deaths related to the ignition switch flaw topped 200. Under these conditions, both GM and the National Women’s History Museum have decided to part ways for Monday’s ceremony. Three women will still receive the honors: U.S. Interior Secretary Sally Jewell, NASA mathematician Katherine Johnson and GoldieBlox founder Debbie Sterling, who advocates for closing the gender gap in engineering and technology professions.