Prosecutors are moving forward with a criminal case against General Motors over its faulty ignition switches, but many GM employees who helped hide the issue for a decade are probably in the clear, reports the New York Times. Those familiar with the investigation say loopholes in laws relating to and created with pressure from the auto industry mean employees can face only civil, rather than criminal, penalties. Though lawmakers have tried to include harsher penalties in such laws on several occasions, the auto industry has always opposed the changes. In one case, following the GM recall last year, a lawmaker proposed imposing criminal penalties on any corporate officer guilty of knowingly hiding a product's risk of death or injury, but it went nowhere. A similar measure was halted just last week.
While some limited criminal penalties for carmakers are on the books, "unlike other regulated industries where health or human safety is involved, there is no criminal statute aimed at the carmakers that does not require specific criminal intent," says a lawyer working on the GM investigation. Investigators have uncovered evidence that employees concealed the ignition issue from the company and its regulators, but intent is much harder to prove. "When you don't have the legal tools to prosecute someone who acted badly and hurt someone else, it is incredibly frustrating," the lawyer says. The case shows the clout of auto lobbyists, the Times notes; the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers has hired six lobbying firms in the past 18 months. Meanwhile, the death toll from faulty switches has risen to 124. (Read more General Motors stories.)