November 26, 2010 in City

Vestal: Faulty airbag deployment, GM rattle driver

By The Spokesman-Review
 
Christopher Anderson photo

Alana Brown-Clutter is not happy with GM after the airbags of her car deployed, leaving her battered and bruised. She has waged a three-month battle to get her expenses covered.
(Full-size photo)

Alana Brown-Clutter was driving her nice, newish Pontiac G6 out of her apartment complex in August when she was rocked by a loud explosion.

“I thought someone had shot me,” Brown-Clutter said. “I pulled into the median and I was, like, sobbing.”

The side airbags in her car had gone off, leaving her bruised and battered but luckily not any worse. What followed was a three-month exercise in futility – trying to get some recompense from General Motors, which owns Pontiac. Brown-Clutter’s not asking for a lot – she had some medical bills, a towing charge, missed some work, lost two years of car payments, and spent weeks trying to get the company’s claims department to deal with her – but GM’s not giving an inch. Its final offer was to take back the car and pay off her loan.

It was the least the company could do.

Literally.

Brown-Clutter’s saga is not a tragedy, but it could have been. It seems like the company that sold her the car would take an interest. Show a little responsibility. Try to keep her around as a customer. Instead, GM ignored, delayed and finally made her an offer that can only be described as paltry, given the risk their car put her in.

Meanwhile, Brown-Clutter had kept making payments in the hopes that the car company might help provide a deal that would allow her to get into another car. She’s given up on that now. She’s taking GM’s deal, and buying another car – not a GM, if you’re wondering.

For all the good it did her, the $420 a month in car payments – plus the extra she’d been directing toward the principal – would have been better spent leasing a Mercedes.

“I guess I thought they’d either pay the car off and pay me for the little bit of medical I had, the towing and the half-day of work lost – just the small, small things, and a little bit for being freaked out by the airbag,” said Brown-Clutter, a 27-year-old therapist at Spokane Mental Health. “I was so naïve. I thought … ‘They’re going to be so upset that this happened.’ ”

Airbags have been a big advance for crash safety, of course. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration says more than 25,000 lives were saved by front airbags between 1987 and 2008. Side airbags are a more recent development, and they are designed to protect your head and neck in the event of side crashes.

Taras Rudnitsky, a former GM engineer who became an attorney specializing in vehicle defects, said cases like this have cropped up a bit in recent years, as electronic airbag systems have become more complicated. He said the worst-case scenarios have so far tended to involve the opposite problem – airbags failing to deploy when they should. But he said he’s heard from several people recently who have had airbags just go off without cause.

In most cases, like Brown-Clutter’s, it doesn’t make much sense to pursue a case against the manufacturer because the electronic detective work needed to prove the case is very expensive – sometimes well over $100,000, Rudnitsky said.

That’s the same advice Brown-Clutter heard when she consulted with attorneys. She wasn’t seeking a big settlement, but she thought GM would do more than just take back its faulty car and cover her loan.

Her airbag popped Aug. 16 as she was driving to work. She’d had the G6 for two years – it was her first brand-new car, purchased not long after she graduated from Eastern Washington University and went to work as a mental health therapist – and she’d been thrilled with it.

The airbag deployment produced a loud, disorienting explosion. Brown-Clutter pulled over and gathered her wits. Her left arm suffered a large bruise and scraping. A fire crew came and advised her to have the car towed, and a friend picked her up and took her to the doctor.

She had purchased the car at a dealership in Omak, Wash., and she worked briefly in this instance with Becker Buick GMC. Brown-Clutter says she has no beefs with either dealership. But this case, she was told, was between her and the manufacturer.

She entered the claims process with GM (motto: Thanks for the bailout!). She filled out the paperwork and waited. And waited. And waited.

A trail of her e-mails shows a pattern of her asking a claims representative when she’d be told what was happening, and her being told it would be soon, next week, any day now.

“The claims guy – I know it’s not his job to care – but at one point he didn’t call me back for three weeks,” she said.

Meanwhile, she was making the car payments. And driving a loaner car with no guarantee that it would be paid for. And wondering how she would get another car.

“No one ever said, ‘I’m sorry this happened to you,’ which is pretty bad,” she said. “I could have died in that car.”

Eventually, the company said it didn’t know how it had happened, though she was advised the car was not safe or repairable. My attempts to reach the claims representative she dealt with were unsuccessful.

Brown-Clutter signed the deal this week and bought a new car over the weekend. A Subaru Impreza. She still gets Pontiac come-ons in the mail, but that’s a relationship that’s ended – for her and her family, she says.

Her sister helped her design a bumper sticker venting her anger at the company. It says: “GM ripped my friend off. They sold her a dangerous and defective car. How did they remedy the situation? They didn’t.”

Brown-Clutter says, “Our family’s had like six GM vehicles. No one in my family’s going to buy another one.”

Shawn Vestal can be reached at (509) 459-5431 or shawnv@spokesman.com.


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