By Ben Klayman
DETROIT (Reuters) - General Motors Co Chief Executive Mary Barra said she did not learn details about defective GM cars linked to 12 deaths until January 31, just two weeks after she was named CEO and nearly 13 years after GM engineers first documented problems.
GM last month recalled 1.6 million cars from 2003 to 2007 to replace faulty ignition switches that could cause the engine to shut down and turn off the airbags. The first death linked to the defect occurred in Maryland in July 2005.
"I am very sorry for the loss of life that has occurred," Barra said at a roundtable meeting with journalists on Tuesday.
She said she learned in late December, when she was still head of GM's global product development organization, that there was a review of the Chevrolet Cobalt, one of the cars subsequently involved in the recall.
"Clearly, this took too long," she said of the lengthy internal engineering probe of the defective switches, which GM first learned about in 2001 and initially addressed in dealer service bulletins in 2005.
Another GM executive, Mark Reuss, said at Tuesday's roundtable meeting that he called Barra in late January after he and other GM executives decided to recall the Cobalt and other models with the defective switches. Reuss, who was president of GM North America, succeeded Barra in mid-January as global product development chief.
Barra said she is prepared to testify about the recall at U.S. congressional hearings in Washington.
She declined to address directly questions about whether GM plans to set up a trust fund for crash victims. Barra said GM has not contacted families of the 12 victims.
Barra said her goals are twofold: "To repair every single one of these vehicles," and "to make sure this problem never happens again."
(Reporting by Ben Klayman in Detroit; Writing by Paul Lienert; editing by Matthew Lewis)