General Motors likely will pay a substantial price for a defect in some of its vehicles that is suspected in hundreds of deaths and injuries.

The company has recalled millions of vehicles to replace defective ignition switches. In some cases, car engines have turned off while in motion, disabling power steering and brake, and airbags.

Just as Toyota was assessed a record $1.2 billion fine in March for failing to advise federal regulators and customers of the causes of sudden acceleration in some of its cars, GM likely faces penalties for failing to notify regulators of the ignition switch defect.

And, as indicated by a potential class action suit filed against GM this week in the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Pennsylvania, the company could face substantial civil liability.

The most startling part of the GM case is that the company was aware of the problem. According to testimony at a U.S. House committee hearing, GM conducted an engineering analysis of the problem but concluded in 2005 that "none of the solutions represent an acceptable business case."

Consumer activist Ralph Nader, who made his name in the 1960s by exposing the safety flaws of the Chevrolet Corvair, has recommended legislation once proposed by Rep. John Conyers - the Dangerous Products Warning Act.

Such a bill specifically would require companies to warn employees, customers and regulators of any product or service that poses a danger. It also would create criminal penalties for any product supervisor who fails to issue the appropriate warnings to the appropriate parties.

GM is far from alone in its failure to warn of danger. Historically, the list includes the entire tobacco industry, asbestos manufacturers and some manufacturers of medical devices and other health care products, and many others.

Congress should pass the bill and include whistleblower protections so that compliance with the law does not result in penalties at work.