General Motors (GM) once used asbestos in parts, which caused exposure and illness in thousands of workers. Asbestos use in car parts was common through the 1980s. GM has faced numerous asbestos and mesothelioma lawsuits and created an asbestos trust fund to compensate victims.
About General Motors
For many years, General Motors was the largest car company in the world. In 2008, Toyota overtook GM. However, GM remains one of the world’s top automakers, ranking third behind Toyota and Volkswagen.
GM sells cars on six continents and employs nearly a quarter of a million people worldwide. The company operates 20,000 dealerships in 125 countries and sells several different brands of automobiles.
GM History and Asbestos
The history of General Motors stretches back more than 100 years. In 1908, William C. Durant, the owner of the Buick brand, formed General Motors Corporation in Flint, Michigan. Durant originally manufactured horse-drawn carriages.
- General Motors acquired many automotive companies through the years, including Oldsmobile and the Reliance Motor Truck Company. Reliance would become the GMC brand of well-known trucks.
- In 1910, Durant lost control of GM, going on to found Chevrolet. Durant used his new company to buy a stake in GM. In 1918, he was able to take back control of GM, adding the long-lasting Chevrolet brand to the company’s line-up.
- General Motors also acquired automobile parts makers and other companies, including appliance makers Frigidaire and Delco Appliance Corporation. It acquired auto parts companies as well, including Hyatt Roller Bearing.
- During World War II, GM used its assembly lines to make tanks, weapons, airplanes, and even ships and ship components. GM thrived in the post-war economy and was profitable for decades, becoming the world’s largest carmaker.
- By the 1970s and 1980s, competition from Japanese carmakers hurt GM and other U.S. car companies. While sales declined, rising pension and healthcare costs further hurt the company’s bottom line.
- GM also faced over $600 million in lawsuits over asbestos exposure and illness. Some automotive parts in GM cars contained asbestos, as did some of the products made by Delco Appliance. The latter included asbestos-insulated boilers.
- In June 2009, GM filed for bankruptcy. After a quick reorganization and a controversial federal bailout, GM was back just a month later. However, the company was forced to give up several of its brands. As part of GM’s reorganization, it was also required to establish an asbestos trust fund.
By 2019, GM had repaid the government’s loan of $49.5 billion. The company continues to operate and turn a profit today.
How Did GM Use Asbestos?
Asbestos was once widely used in the auto industry. Because it is inexpensive, readily available, and resists heat and fire, it was a useful substance for car manufacturers. Heat resistance is important for motor vehicles.
Hood liners, for instance, contained asbestos to prevent fires. Brakes and clutches contained asbestos to combat heat-generating friction.
GM Asbestos Parts and Products
Many GM parts that contained asbestos came from third-party manufacturers. One company was BorgWarner. Starting in the 1960s, BorgWarner supplied GM with asbestos-containing clutches and brakes. Other asbestos parts that went into GM vehicles include:
- Brake linings
- Disc brakes
- Brake drums
- Clutch linings
- Transmission components
Some non-automotive companies acquired by GM also used asbestos. This included boiler maker Delco Appliance Corporation, which used asbestos in its products in the 1930s and 1940s. Frigidaire appliances also contained asbestos insulation.
Who Was at Risk for Asbestos Exposure from GM Parts?
Asbestos in car parts and other products made by companies GM acquired hurt people working in many industries. These include the employees who manufactured the asbestos parts or worked on the line putting them into vehicles.
Mechanics Had the Highest Risk of Asbestos Exposure
GM and factor workers who put asbestos components into vehicles could have been exposed, but other workers had higher risks.
Mechanics particularly faced high risks of asbestos exposure. When mechanics removed, repaired, or replaced clutches and brakes containing asbestos, they were exposed to asbestos dust.
Anyone who inhaled asbestos fibers risked developing mesothelioma and other serious illnesses. Mechanics who worked solely or mostly on brakes and clutches stirred up a lot of asbestos dust and had very high exposure rates.
Other Workers Harmed by GM Asbestos Parts
People who repaired appliances manufactured by GM companies were put at similar risk. Others worked with or around asbestos-laden parts, including:
- Factory workers
- Warehouse staff
- Maintenance workers
Secondhand Asbestos Exposure in GM Families
Family members of workers exposed to asbestos in GM parts also faced risks. Before they knew how dangerous asbestos was, some workers brought fibers home on their clothing and contaminated their homes. Some people who experienced secondhand exposure developed related illnesses.
Do GM Vehicles and Parts Still Contain Asbestos?
American automakers, including GM, stopped using asbestos in parts in the 1970s and 1980s. This did not end the risk of exposure. Older vehicles still have asbestos parts. Home mechanics and hobbyists are at risk of asbestos exposure from these vintage car parts.
Asbestos in General Motors Plants
GM’s past asbestos use continues to haunt communities and residents near old plants. The former GM plant outside Newport, Delaware, was recently in the news during its demolition.
The plant is set to be converted into a business park, but an abatement company on the site violated several safety regulations when dealing with old asbestos. Workers blew the whistle by sharing videos from inside the worksite where asbestos “snow” swirled in the air around them.
Residents of St. Catharines, Ontario are at risk of exposure to asbestos in a GM plant that closed in 2010. The plant made brake shoes with asbestos. A development company purchased the property and began work on it but abandoned the facility in 2018, leaving toxic materials behind. Nearby residents have complained about contaminated soil and water as well as higher rates of cancer.
Asbestos Lawsuits Against GM
By 2009, GM sought bankruptcy protection. Before the bankruptcy, the company faced several hundred million dollars in asbestos lawsuits. Most lawsuits were related to asbestos in clutches and brake linings.
- Auto mechanic Roland Grenier worked nearly forty years on GM and Ford cars and parts. He spent a lot of his time repairing and grinding clutches and brakes, which stirred up asbestos dust. In 2005, Grenier was diagnosed with mesothelioma. He filed suit against General Motors and other defendants and received a $2 million verdict. The jury found GM 70% liable.
- In another case, a man who worked in a GM warehouse alleged his exposure to asbestos in products like BorgWarner automotive parts caused his mesothelioma. That secondary exposure resulted in his mesothelioma diagnosis. His widow was awarded $30 million.
GM’s Asbestos Trust Fund and Bankruptcy
While many problems contributed to GM’s 2009 bankruptcy, asbestos lawsuits were a major factor. Because of pending asbestos lawsuits, GM established an asbestos trust fund.
During the reorganization, GM transferred its asbestos liability claims to the Motors Liquidation Company Asbestos Personal Injury Trust.
The trust fund opened in 2012 and was funded to settle any future asbestos claims and compensate victims of mesothelioma and other illnesses. It paid out nearly $32 million in claims between 2012 and 2017. 
General Motors was large enough to survive asbestos litigation. After bankruptcy and a government bailout, the company made a comeback and again became profitable.
For many auto industry workers, GM’s comeback did not include them. Many mechanics and GM employees exposed to asbestos over years became sick as a result. These individuals can make claims with the Motors Liquidation Company Asbestos Personal Injury Trust. The GM Trust’s current payment percentage is 14.3%.
What to Do if You Were Exposed to GM Asbestos Parts
If you worked with GM auto parts, especially brakes and clutches, in the past, you could have been exposed to asbestos. If you get a diagnosis of mesothelioma or another asbestos illness, contact an experienced mesothelioma lawyer.
The right lawyer will review your case for free. They can help you determine which companies are responsible and could be held liable. If you handled GM asbestos parts as a career or hobby, you could be eligible for compensation from the trust. A lawyer can guide you through the process of making a claim.Get Your FREE Mesothelioma Packet
Page Written by Mary Ellen Ellis
Mary Ellen Ellis has been the head writer for Mesothelioma.net since 2016. With hundreds of mesothelioma and asbestos articles to her credit, she is one of the most experienced writers on these topics. Her degrees and background in science and education help her explain complicated medical topics for a wider audience. Mary Ellen takes pride in providing her readers with the critical information they need following a diagnosis of an asbestos-related illness.
Page Edited by Patient Advocate Dave Foster
Dave has been a mesothelioma Patient Advocate for over 10 years. He consistently attends all major national and international mesothelioma meetings. In doing so, he is able to stay on top of the latest treatments, clinical trials, and research results. He also personally meets with mesothelioma patients and their families and connects them with the best medical specialists and legal representatives available.