Confidential emails between General Motors and the company that manufactured its ignition switches appear to show that GM decided to replace the defective parts before alerting customers or the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration.
The emails, turned up by lawyers representing people who claim injury from the defective switches, are between GM employees and representatives of Delphi Products and Services Solutions.
In the emails, GM employees appear to place an order asking Delphi to produce and ship 500,000 replacement ignition switches as part of a "field action" that is marked "urgent."
The emails, according to a lawyer representing the victims, contain evidence of "a criminal cover-up that cost lives and caused severe injuries."
"This meets the traditional definition of gross negligence," said attorney Robert Hilliard. "This shows a conscious decision made with callous disregard for the safety of others."
The emails, which are dated between December 2013 and February 2014, illustrate an ongoing discussion between GM and Delphi about how many parts are needed, how quickly they can be produced and at what cost.
Several emails put the number of parts needed at between 500,000 and 700,000 units at a cost of about $2.6 million.
The dates on the emails are significant, Hilliard charged, because if GM was ordering replacement parts as early as Dec. 18, 2013, it was hiding essential information from its customers and from federal agents.
The ignition switch recall was not issued until February 2014, which Hilliard calculates was almost two months after GM knew about deaths related to the problem.
"That many replacement switches, ordered on an 'urgent' basis, is a de facto recall," Hilliard said. "This is a criminal cover-up that cost lives and caused severe injuries."
Hilliard's firm represents approximately 2,200 individual plaintiffs in cases he said involve at least 100 deaths.
"The total number of deaths caused by GM's conduct will never be known, because their cover-up was successful," Hilliard said. "They covered this up for 10 years. As a result, vehicles are gone, accident records cannot be restored, and no one remembers what car it was that ran that stop light and caused someone's death. As a result, a large victim population will never see justice."
GM, in response to published reports concerning the emails, did not dispute the veracity of the emails. The company said in a statement, "These emails are further confirmation that our system needed reform, and we have done so. We have reorganized our entire safety investigation and decision process and have more investigators, move issues more quickly and make decisions with better data."