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Originally published Friday, March 2, 2007 at 12:00 AM

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Suits filed over GM speedometers

Kevin Zwicker knew something was wrong when the speedometer on his 2004 Chevy Suburban indicated he was going 10 mph, even though he was...

Seattle Times staff reporter

Kevin Zwicker knew something was wrong when the speedometer on his 2004 Chevy Suburban indicated he was going 10 mph, even though he was driving at or near the speed limit on Interstate 5.

Zwicker's speedometer failed completely in April 2006. But General Motors did not replace it for free because the truck was outside the standard three-year, 36,000-mile warranty period.

Zwicker had purchased an extended warranty, so he paid $100 for a new speedometer rather than the usual $400 to $500.

But now Zwicker, who lives in Snohomish, is the lead plaintiff in a federal lawsuit seeking damages on behalf of potentially thousands of people. The lawsuit, filed last week in U.S. District Court in Seattle, could potentially cover all Washington residents who purchased GM trucks and sport-utility vehicles from 2003 to 2007, and who have had to replace defective speedometers.

Zwicker, 48, considers himself a "savvy driver," but said it was uncomfortable driving without knowing how fast he was going.

"I don't think it's fair that a major manufacturer such as GM can let something like this go by and not give it some serious thought," Zwicker said.

A nearly identical suit was filed this week in U.S. District Court in Oregon on behalf of John Hall, who paid $427.50 in January to fix a defective speedometer on his 2003 GMC Envoy LE.

The lawsuits in Washington and Oregon are seeking class-action status, according to Beth Terrell, an attorney with the Seattle law firm of Tousley Brain Stephens who is representing Hall and Zwicker. The suits cover five Chevrolet models: Avalanche, Silverado, Suburban, Tahoe and Trailblazer; four GMC models: Denali, Envoy, Sierra and Trailblazer; and the Cadillac Escalade.

Additional suits could follow in other states, but there are currently no plans to consolidate the cases into a single national suit against the world's largest automaker.

"We think it makes sense to prosecute GM in each state on behalf of that state's residents," Terrell said.

A spokeswoman for GM said the company had no comment because it had not yet seen the lawsuits.

The suit filed on behalf of Zwicker is seeking three types of compensation from GM: replacement of all speedometers on the affected models; reimbursement for anyone who has already paid to have a defective speedometer replaced; and reimbursement for anyone who has had to pay speeding tickets, and whose auto insurance rates have risen as a result of a speeding ticket, due to a defective speedometer.

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The legal filing includes quotes from 19 complaints posted on the Web site of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, and other Internet sites, alleging problems with GM speedometers.

"My '04 Chevy Tahoe's speedometer with only 40,000 [miles] just quit working and is stuck on 55 mph even when it sits in the garage," said one of the anonymous complaints.

Vehicle owners whose speedometers have failed while the truck is under warranty are not covered by the lawsuit. But Terrell said the defects most often show up after the warranty has lapsed.

Terrell doesn't know how many trucks could be covered by the lawsuit. GM sold roughly 827,000 trucks covered by the lawsuit in 2006, according to its most recent financial results. It is not clear how many of the trucks were sold in Washington state.

The lawsuit alleges that GM failed to perform a product recall, and continued to sell trucks with defective speedometers, even though it was aware of the problems. "[GM] has known of the defects in the trucks and their speedometers since at least 2003, if not earlier," the lawsuit alleges.

The case has been assigned to U.S. District Judge John Coughenour, who will decide whether to certify the lawsuit as a class-action.

David Bowermaster: 206-464-2724 or dbowermaster@seattletimes.com

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