Charged with installing computer chips that resulted in emitting excessive amounts of
carbon dioxide from their Cadillacs, General Motors agreed in December 1995 to recall
nearly 500,000 late-model Cadillacs and pay nearly $45 million in fines and recall costs.
Lawyers for the Environmental Protection Agency and the Justice Department contended that
G.M. knew that the design change would result in pollution problems. Rejecting this claim,
G.M. released a statement saying that the case was "a matter of interpretation"
of complex regulations, but that it had "worked extremely hard to resolve the matter
and avoid litigation."
According to EPA and Justice Department officials, the $11 million civil penalty was
the third largest penalty in a pollution case, the second largest under such penalty under
the Clean Air Act, and the largest involving motor vehicle pollution. This was also the
first case of a court ordering an automobile recall to reduce pollution rather than to
improve safety or dependability.
Government officials said that in 1990 a new computer chip was designed for the engine
controls of Cadillac Seville and Deville models. This was in response to car owners
complaints that these cars tended to stall when the climate control system was running.
The chips injected additional fuel into the engine whenever this system was running. But
this resulted in tailpipe emissions of carbon dioxide well in excess of the regulations.
Although the cars are usually driven with the climate control system running, tests
used for certifying the meeting of emission standards were conducted when the system was
not running. This was standard practice for emission tests throughout the automotive
However, EPA officials argued that, under the Clean Air Act, G.M. should have informed
them that the Cadillacs design was changed in a way that would result in violating
pollution standards under normal driving conditions. In 1970, the officials said,
automobile manufacturers were directed not to slip around testing rules by designing cars
that technically pass the tests but that, nevertheless, cause avoidable pollution.
G.M.s competitors, the officials contended, complied with that directive.
A G.M. spokesperson said that testing emissions with the climate control running was
not required because, "It was not in the rules, not in the regulations; its not
in the Clean Air Act." However, claiming that G.M. discovered the problem in 1991,
Justice Department environmental lawyer Thomas P. Carroll objected to G.M.s
continued inclusion of the chip in the 1992-5 models: "They should have gone back and
re-engineered it to improve the emissions."
In agreeing to recall the vehicles, G.M. said it now had a way of controlling the
stalling problem without increasing pollution. This involves "new fueling
calibrations," G.M. said, and it "should have no adverse effect on the
driveability of the vehicles involved."
What responsibilities did G.M. engineers have in regard to either causing or resolving
the problems with the Cadillac Seville and Deville models?