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article image'You can't cry:' Crash victim's mom demands answers from GM

By Michael Mathes (AFP)     Apr 3, 2014 in Business

Mary Ruddy can pinpoint the moment she inadvertently sealed her daughter Kelly Erin's fate -- when she handed over the keys to her 2005 Chevrolet Cobalt.

Kelly, a gregarious 21-year-old student at Marywood University in their hometown of Scranton, Pennsylvania, needed a car to get around, and Ruddy, who worked part time with her daughter at the school's library, obliged.

"I kissed her on both cheeks and told her 'Don't fret, you can have mommy's car' -- never knowing I was giving something that was going to kill her," Ruddy told AFP.

That was December 2009. Three weeks later, after visiting friends down Interstate 81, Kelly would die behind the wheel of her red Cobalt, one of at least 13 people killed while travelling in a General Motors car that has since been recalled for a defective ignition switch.

After more than a decade of GM hiding the problem, failing to act on fixes, and ignoring warnings from their own engineers, the issue has come to haunt the nation's largest automaker, and families like the Ruddys are pressing for answers and accountability.

GM inspectors collected the Ruddy car's black data box, but in the four years that have passed they never told the family what, if anything, they learned about the crash in which the car flipped over, burst into flames and catapulted Kelly onto the highway where she was run over by passing traffic.

"From the very beginning I suspected mechanical failure," specifically the ignition switch defect, Ruddy said.

Ruddy has recounted her tragedy countless times, but she has learned to contain her tears. "You can't cry, as much as your heart is breaking inside," she insisted. "If you cry your message is muddled."

That message -- warning that General Motors tried for years to sweep a lethal problem under the factory mat, and demanding that the US auto giant face fines and criminal charges -- has become their mission. It was one they vigorously spread for two days this week at the US Capitol.

Ruddy and husband Lou were among several victims' relatives who came to Washington to watch GM chief executive Mary Barra face a barrage of questions from lawmakers furious about the ignition switch crisis.

They also put faces to the tragedy.

"We are the people left behind when a loved one got into what was supposed to be a safe car, a GM car -- a car that GM knew for years was dangerous and defective," said Laura Christian, whose daughter died in a 2005 Chevy Cobalt crash blamed on faulty ignition.

As Barra apologized, pledged transparency, and promised that GM would "do the right thing," the Ruddys and others sat in the congressional hearings, clutching photographs of their loved ones.

-'A veil of lies'-

Ruddy said it was hard for her and Lou to maintain composure as they sat a few steps from Barra. For years GM told them nothing.

She often blogged about her case on a Detroit Free Press website, to the point administrators blocked her because of her uncomfortable posts about how GM was treating her.

"They've been hiding behind a veil of lies," Ruddy said.

But that veil is beginning to lift, albeit slowly. GM has provided more than 200,000 pages in documents to investigators and lawmakers, and Barra acknowledged GM's "civic responsibilities" related to the defaults.

Lawmakers assured Ruddy and others they would get to the bottom of what happened, even if it means criminal prosecution.

"I think it's pretty much incontrovertible that GM knew about this lethal safety defect, failed to correct it, and failed to tell its customers about it," Senator Richard Blumenthal told Barra at Wednesday's hearing.

In a humanizing gesture, Barra met privately with some of the relatives. The Ruddys were not among them.

"What purpose would it serve?" snapped Lou.

Vast legal troubles may well await GM. It faces a Justice Department probe, lawsuits tied to the faulty ignitions, and potentially billions of dollars in penalties and damages.

Blumenthal is urging GM establish a compensation fund, but Ruddy insisted they are not motivated by monetary gain.

"We are here because it is the right thing to do for the people that are still driving these cars," she said.

"This is far from over."

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