A General Motors employee who continued to notice safety issues in vehicles and spoke up was transferred to a job where he was instructed to “not find every problem that GM might have, according to a Bloomberg Businessweek story posted today.
Courtland Kelley, now 52, has worked at GM for more than 30 years, originally as a safety inspector, then in 2002 as brand manager for the Chevrolet Cavalier — the Cobalt’s predecessor — and the Pontiac Sunfire.
He declined to be interviewed for the Bloomberg Businessweek cover story. He remains employed by GM in its quality organization and can be considered part of the quality team, a GM spokesman said.
The transfer came in 2002 after Kelley petitioned for an expanded recall of the Chevrolet TrailBlazer, which had persistent issues with a leaking fuel line. Kelley sued GM in 2003 for delaying action to address issues in its cars and trucks, but eventually lost after complications with his lawyer.
Kelley initially noticed the fuel leak in November 2001 and was allegedly told by a product investigator that a recall would be too costly. GM recalled 60,044 TrailBlazers, GMC Envoys and Oldsmobile Bravadas in April 2002, and Kelley was transferred to a position away from the quality audit. However, dealers continued to claim that vehicles not covered by the recall were leaking fuel.
Predated ignition switch issue
Kelley’s whistle-blowing attempt predated the faulty ignition switch in the Cobalt, the Saturn Ion and related models that has been linked to 13 deaths and led to the recall of more than 2.6 million vehicles.
Kelley was mentioned on page 93 of independent investigator Anton Valukas’ report — released this month — when safety inspector Steven Oakley claimed he was too afraid to bring up safety concerns with the Cobalt after watching his predecessor, Kelley, get “pushed out of the job for doing just that.”
Though Kelley brought legal action against GM, he remained employed by the company, being moved from one position to another. It is not immediately clear what Kelley’s current title is.
“He still has a job — he doesn’t have a career,” Bill McAleer, a former GM employee, told Bloomberg.
McAleer sued GM in 2000 over ignored defects that included improperly attached brakes and fuel leaks in 1999 model year vehicles that he and Kelley had detected in a safety audit.
After McAleer filed his suit, Kelley was instructed by George Kingston, then director of quality for North American operations, to not disclose any serious defect concerns to McAleer.
In Kelley’s lawsuit, he claimed Kingston told him that “higher-ranking executives might want to make things difficult” for Kelley.
Corroborates ‘GM nod’
Kelley’s experience with executives corroborates the GM culture detailed in the Valukas report. According to the report, gestures such as the “GM salute” and the “GM nod” were emblematic of the company’s inclination to acknowledge problems but not act on them.
GM CEO Mary Barra returned to the U.S. House of Representatives today to testify on the company’s delayed response to the faulty ignition switch. When the Valukas report was released, Barra said its findings were “extremely thorough, brutally tough, and deeply troubling.”
Since the release of the report, Barra has vowed to fix the passive GM culture and encourage employees to speak up.
In a statement to Bloomberg Businessweek, GM said that it was reviewing Kelley’s employment claims and safety concerns as part of its renewed commitment to customer safety.
For the entire Bloomberg Businessweek story, click here.