Emails between General Motors and its ignition switch supplier appear to show that GM decided to replace the defective parts before alerting customers or regulators that they might cause dangerous wrecks.
The emails, turned up by lawyers representing the families of crash victims, were sent between GM employees and representatives of Delphi Products and Services Solutions.
The emails show GM employees on Dec. 18, 2013, asking Delphi to produce and ship 500,000 units of a replacement part.
"I am looking for a build and ship plan for a large volume of this part to support an urgent field action for our customers," the first email in the string reads. "I need to secure an order of 500,000 pcs. at this time."
An email sent the following day reads, "I would need to start seeing shipments ASAP."
The subsequent emails put the number of parts needed at 500,000 to 700,000 units at a cost of $2.6 million.
According to Robert Hilliard, a lawyer representing the victims, they constitute evidence of "a criminal coverup that cost lives and caused severe injuries."
"This meets the traditional definition of gross negligence," Hilliard said. "This shows a conscious decision made with callous disregard for the safety of others."
The release of documents brought a response from Capitol Hill.
"These documents raise deeply disturbing questions," Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) said in a statement. "The question is, why the delay, and how many lives were put at risk since GM waited at least two months before issuing a recall even though it had already decided to order parts."
The defective ignition switches, which can cause an ignition key to slip out of the "on" position and disable steering, braking and air bags, have been linked to more than 30 deaths and have led to the recall of 2.6 million GM vehicles.
GM 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."
The dates on the emails are significant, Hilliard said. If GM was ordering replacement parts as early as Dec. 18, 2013, it was hiding essential information from its customers and from federal officials, he said.
The ignition switch recall was not issued until February 2014, which Hilliard calculates was almost two months after GM knew about the problem and was already taking steps to correct it.
On Feb. 13, 2014, a GM email to Delphi reads: "The 'Safety' issue was reported to NHTSA today.… We will begin notifying vehicle owners in early April."
GM was required by law to report the safety issue to vehicle owners much earlier, Hilliard said.
"That many replacement switches, ordered on an 'urgent' basis, is a de facto recall," Hilliard said.
Hilliard said that statements from GM Chief Executive Mary Barra should be reexamined for accuracy. Barra assumed the top job Jan. 15, 2014, and has testified to Congress that she did not know about the ignition switch recall until Jan. 31.
Hilliard told The Times on Monday that it is "not credible" that Barra could have been unaware until Jan. 31 of a decision being made to spend $2.6 million on a purchase of 500,000 to 700,000 replacement parts. Before being appointed CEO, she was in a position to know about the safety issues as the company's executive vice president of Global Product Development and Purchasing & Supply Chain, Hilliard said.
Blumenthal called for further testimony from Barra to explain the delay in notifying drivers and regulators.
Hilliard's firm represents about 2,200 individual plaintiffs in cases that he said involve at least 100 deaths.
"The total number of deaths caused by GM's conduct will never be known, because their coverup 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 stoplight and caused someone's death. As a result, a large victim population will never see justice."