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Saturday, June 15, 2024

General Motors recalls too late for sister of UF football player's family

For years, Renee Trautwein went between blaming and missing her daughter.

Sarah Trautwein, a 19-year-old University of South Carolina student and sister of former UF football player Phil Trautwein, was driving home on Interstate 95 in 2009 when she lost control of her 2005 Chevy Cobalt and crashed into a tree.

When Trautwein got the call, she couldn’t believe it. She heard the police say Sarah had fallen asleep at the wheel and died on impact. Her daughter was gone, and she didn’t even know Sarah was on the road. She was supposed to come home from Hilton Head, S.C., on Saturday, but she left early Friday to be with her mom and see the family shih tzu, Sonnie.

“Whenever I had a meltdown, I’d be mad at Sarah for getting in that car,” she said. “I was weak, and for five years I accepted that — until recently,” she said.

Renee said she saw news reports about four weeks ago of a controversial recall on several General Motors vehicles, and the reports haunted her. Her suspicions took hold when she heard stories of accidents similar to her daughter’s. A lawsuit was being filed by Texas lawyer Bob Hilliard.

The family contacted Hilliard, whom Trautwein said was sure Sarah’s accident was due to the faulty part in the recall, so he began an investigation.

She said Hilliard returned a week later with the police accident report and startling news — Sarah’s airbag never deployed, which is one warning sign that her car was affected by the faulty part.

Since then, the Trautweins have joined the group of families who lost loved ones because of the faulty part and are fighting to raise criminal charges against GM.

Trautwein attended the April congressional hearing where GM’s late recall of 2.6 million vehicles with the ignition defect was called into question.

She sat in the room while GM CEO Mary Barra was questioned by Congress’ House Energy and Commerce Oversight and Investigations Subcommittee about the company’s late action and the subsequent deaths and injuries.

Reuters reported GM learned of the defect in Chevrolet Cobalt, Saturn Ions and several other models in 2001 but hadn’t issued a recall until February.

GM employee statements citing costs associated with a recall may have discouraged the company from replacing the part in the vehicles. The replacement part cost 57 cents, according to Reuters.

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A press release from GM stated the company is recalling these vehicles because the ignition switches’ resistance might be below GM specifications. In the case of a switch below the standard, any more weight than the key itself or a “jarring event” might turn the ignition out of the “run” position.

“Ensuring our customers’ safety is our first order of business,” said GM North America President Alan Batey in a press release. “We are deeply sorry, and we are working to address this issue as quickly as we can.”

Trautwein said she felt sick during the hearing. She said she felt Barra’s responses were scripted and cold.

She recalled that Sarah had a Vera Bradley wallet on her keychain, holding her credit card, driver’s license and some loose cash. It was heavy enough to turn the ignition, cutting her power steering, power brakes and airbags.

The family bought Sarah the car her senior year of high school from a GM dealership in New Jersey. It was Gator blue with a small orange line running down it.

She remembers driving home with her daughter the day before the accident, when Sarah turned to her and said “Mom, I love my car.”

[A version of this story ran on page 21 on 4/23/2014 under the headline "GM recalls too late for family"]

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