ROCKINGHAM — There’s a new cemetery in town, but no one is buried there.
The collection of mock headstones is a symbol of Kathy Phillips’ fury toward General Motors, which has caused at least 13 deaths — though she believes the number is much higher — due to a defective part in GM cars.
Phillips, 60, said she replaced the garden in her front yard on Fayetteville Road with memorials to the 13 people GM says have died due to faulty ignition switches.
“GM has admitted to 13 deaths,” Phillips said. “But read the news. The numbers will go up. It’s already on several of the biggest news networks that those numbers are expected to go higher.”
The memorials, fashioned after grave markers and labeled “R.I.P.,” bear no victims’ names. Behind them is a floral arrangement with a simple cross emerging from an urn, decorated with red roses. An American flag is nearby and beyond it is one much larger memorial labeled “Unknown.”
A spokesperson for GM confirmed late Thursday that 13 is the official number of fatalities attributed to the defect, but was unable to provide the number of non-fatal injuries it caused.
Phillips has a special interest in raising awareness of the faulty ignition switches. She blames the defect for a fire that started in her car and frightened her grandson, Adam Bishop, who had borrowed the vehicle.
“On Feb. 26, my grandson was driving my 2001 Monte Carlo SS along (U.S.) 74 when the car caught fire,” Phillips said. “He’s 28, not an inexperienced driver. He was really shook up over it, but no one was hurt.”
Phillips is not alone in her belief that GM knew of the faulty ignition switches long before that information was made public. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration issued a special order to General Motors in April “as part of the agency’s ongoing investigation into the timeliness of General Motors’ recall of faulty ignition switches to determine whether GM properly followed the legal processes and requirements for reporting recalls.’”
The automotive giant was also fined the maximum penalty of $35 million for violating safety laws during the investigation into the Chevrolet Cobalt and other small GM cars.
“What is $35 million to a company that size?” Phillips asked. “Nothing. And the government just gave them all this money anyway. So they could do what with it? Scrimp on a part that would have cost only 57 cents more to build right in the first place? I’ve worked in manufacturing before. I’ve worked in engineering. They changed the DNA of the whole building process. That change turned out to be a deadly mistake.”
For many, the mistake hasn’t been deadly or physically painful, but it has been costly. Some GM customers are reaching out but say they are getting the cold shoulder. Phillips said she’s one of them.
“I can’t tell you how many GM cars I’ve had over the years,” she said. “Camaros, Monte Carlos, GTOs, Pontiacs, Buicks. I’ve been a faithful customer, but after my car was totalled — and I mean completely trashed, the engine and drivetrain, everything — I contacted GM over a period of three months and got either unhelpful responses or none at all until a letter arrived dated April 1 explaining that the statute of repose in North Carolina is 12 months from the original date of purchase. That means my time ran out June 6, 2013. They denied my claim completely. Now, I have no car. No way to get around town. No way to spend time with my mother who is 90 years old. I feel like they just don’t care about their customers at all.”
Jeff Dieffenbach of Deiffenbach GM Superstore in Rockingham said he hopes people will pay attention to mailings they may receive about recalled vehicles, or that they will check the corporate website for specific lists of makes and models affected by the recalls.
He said GM owners whose cars have been recalled call his dealership and make an appointment to get their cars fixed as soon as possible.
“We are definitely here to help,” Dieffenbach said. “The sooner we know about people in need of repairs in our area, the sooner we can get the parts in and get them taken care of. We want our customers to be happy, of course, but we can work on any recalled vehicle whether it was purchased here or out of town.”
Meanwhile, Phillips continues to tend the symbolic front-yard graveyard. She said she’s prepared to add to the collection of memorials if the official death toll increases.
“My friend said to me, ‘GM is a big company,’” Phillips said. “And I know I’m just one small person, but I will fight them with my last breath over this. I feel humiliated and angry.”
Reach reporter Melonie Flomer at 910-997-3111, ext. 15.