GM Mary Barra
GM CEO Mary Barra. Reuters

General Motors has fired 15 employees and has taken disciplinary action against five others for their roles in the botched handling of the ignition-switch defect and related vehicle recalls, linked to 13 deaths, Chief Executive Mary Barra said.

Barra announced the dismissals after the company put out a report detailing how for over a decade GM employees heard from customers, dealers, their own colleagues and the press that faulty ignition switches were behind moving vehicle stalls, but failed to take action.

The report, based on an internal investigation, blames incompetent lower-level employees for the mishandling of the ignition-switch problem but surprisingly absolves GM's top brass of any wrongdoing.

More than half of those sacked had held senior or executive roles.

Barra on 5 June told employees that GM will compensate "those who have lost loved ones or who have suffered serious physical injuries as a result of an ignition switch failure."

Valukas Report

The 325-page report, available for download on the US National Highway Traffic Safety Administration's (NHTSA) website, compiles the findings of a probe led by former US Attorney Anton Valukas.

The report found that GM employees "completely failed to understand that the movement of the switch out of the Run position meant the driver and passengers would no longer have the protection of the airbags."

"As a result, GM personnel viewed the switch problem as a 'customer convenience' issue—something annoying but not particularly problematic—as opposed to the safety defect it was."

"While the issue of the ignition switch passed through numerous hands at GM, from engineers to investigators to lawyers, nobody raised the problem to the highest levels of the company," the report said. "As a result, those in the best position to demand quick answers did not know questions needed to be asked."

"A [GM] cultural issue repeatedly described to us and borne out by the evidence is a proliferation of committees and a lack of accountability," Valukas wrote in the report.

'GM Salute'

"One witness described the GM phenomenon of avoiding responsibility as the 'GM salute,' a crossing of the arms and pointing outward towards others, indicating that the responsibility belongs to someone else, not me. It is this same cabining of responsibility, the sense that someone else is responsible, that permeated the Cobalt investigation for years," the report said.

'GM Nod'

"Similarly, Mary Barra described a phenomenon known as the 'GM Nod.' The GM nod, Barra described, is when everyone nods in agreement on a proposed plan of action, but then leaves the room with no intention to follow through, and the nod is an empty gesture. It is an idiomatic recognition of a culture .. that does not move issues forward quickly, as the story of the Cobalt [recalls] demonstrates," Valukas added.

"The Valukas report confirmed that Mary Barra, [General Counsel] Mike Millikin and [Executive Vice President] Mark Reuss did not learn about the ignition switch safety issues and the delay in addressing them until after the decision to issue a recall was made on Jan. 31, 2014," GM Chairman Tim Solso said in a statement.

GM has recalled almost 15.4 million vehicles this year – including 2.6 million vehicles over faulty ignition switches – costing the company about $1.7bn thus far.

GM CEO Mary Barra addressing employees about the ignition switch recall on 5 June, 2014. General Motors