General Motors Co. is now linking 19 deaths to faulty ignition switches in its vehicles.
The higher death-toll figure was disclosed Monday by the compensation expert retained by GM, Kenneth Feinberg, who gave his first public update on the claims made against GM in connection with the switch.
The new figure comes after the auto maker spent months down-playing the death count, saying it knew of only 13 deaths based on the information it had at the time. GM Chief Executive Mary Barra later softened the company’s stance when she established the victim compensation fund and delegated the responsibility of determining who was killed or injured to Mr. Feinberg.
“We have previously said that Ken Feinberg and his team will independently determine the final number of eligible individuals, so we accept their determinations for the compensation program,” GM said in a statement. “What is most important is that we are doing the right thing for those who lost loved ones and for those who suffered physical injury.”
The compensation fund has received a total of 445 claims. Nineteen were certified as deaths while 12 others were certified as legitimate injury claims. Details about all the claims weren’t released although no one has yet agreed to take the payouts and waive their rights to sue the company.
The death toll figure could grow higher, as Mr. Feinberg sorts through the 125 death claims filed as of Friday.
Mr. Feinberg’s office didn’t say how much GM will pay on each claim although death cases automatically receive $1 million in addition to the awarded amount.
GM, which set aside $400 million to fund the compensation program, may need to reserve another $200 million. Fund payouts aren’t capped.
GM created the fund following disclosures that it took more than a decade to recall 2.6 million Chevrolet Cobalt, Saturn Ion and older cars with a potentially deadly defect. The auto maker’s delayed handling of the problem triggered a storm of criticism, as well as civil and criminal investigations.
Ms. Barra, who was cleared by an internal probe, has dismissed 15 GM employees and disciplined five others. The company is under investigation by the Justice Department and a group of state attorneys general and was fined $35 million by the U.S. Transportation Department.
Ms. Barra told The Wall Street Journal last week that the auto maker is cooperating with the Justice Department, but she said she hasn’t personally met with investigators.
Attorneys, meanwhile, are still battling in court over whether GM committed fraud by not disclosing the ignition switch issue during its bankruptcy process. The bankruptcy law currently shields the auto maker from any litigation deriving from incidents before July 2009.