Vicki Denton died several years ago after the airbag in her 1998 Dodge Caravan minivan failed to deploy during a head-on collision in the Georgia mountains. In 2009, a jury found Chrysler responsible for her death because of a manufacturing defect, awarding her surviving son and other relatives $2.2 million.
The family was near collecting those damages on the eve of Chrysler's government-brokered bankruptcy. Now, two years removed from a $12.5 billion bailout, Chrysler Group LLC still hasn't paid the damages, and doesn't have to.
The reason: The company's restructuring allowed it to wash away legal responsibility for car-accident victims who had won damages or had pending lawsuits before its bankruptcy filing. The same holds true for General Motors Co., which discarded the liabilities as part of its own $50 billion bailout and restructuring.
In rescuing the car makers, the U.S. government prevented a potential meltdown of the auto industry and further shocks to the economy. But in the process, it created a wide universe of relative winners and losers. The U.S. Treasury received large ownerships stakes in the restructured auto makers, as did union retiree trusts. Chrysler's banks got some, not all, of their loans repaid in cash, and GM's lenders were fully repaid. On the other side, thousands of dealers, asbestos victims and other creditors received little to no recompense.
Among the creditors who suffered most, car-accident victims represent a distinct mold. Unlike banks and bondholders, this group didn't choose to extend credit to the auto makers. As consumers, they became creditors only after suffering injuries in vehicles they purchased.Wow. This is pretty disgusting, and the judges who allowed these debts to be erased (both of whom are named and quoted in the article, which deserves to be read in its entirety) should be ashamed of themselves.
Of all the terrible precedents set during the financial and auto bailouts (and there are tons of them, some of which--like this one--we're just now finding out about), this might be the worst I've come across so far. It makes me sick to my stomach that a company can be excused of responsibility for its negligence...simply by becoming even more negligent to the point of bankruptcy. The fact that something like this was explicitly allowed (and in fact endorsed) by our federal government only makes it that much worse.
I was anti-bailout from the get-go, and this sends me over the top. Buy American? No thanks.
UPDATE: A commenter correctly pointed out that Ford did not accept bailout funds, and therefore should not be included in my snarky "don't buy American" conclusion. Fair point. I have much respect for Ford for fixing their own problems. GM & Chrysler? Not so much. Buy Ford.
[Wall Street Journal]