The lawsuit(s) against GM over the ignition switches is/was a series of individual and class-action civil suits filed by 230+ families who lost people. It's based on negligence and endangerment. GM offered a settlement and many people accepted it, signing settlement contracts promising not to sue. To date, GM has paid out over $2 billion in settlements and is still negotiating. It is not being handled as a criminal violation, it was not a government regulatory situation. It's citizens filing suit and accepting what they're offered. If they choose not to fight for more, that's their right.
The diesel issue is another thing entirely. These companies violated federal (civil) law. The policies that set the penalties have been around for many decades, and all the car companies know what they are. This paragraph from the civil penalties policy pretty much sums it up.
"If a penalty is to achieve deterrence, both the violator and the general public must be convinced that the penalty places the violator in a worse position than those who have complied in a timely fashion. Neither the violator nor the general public is likely to believe this if the violator is able to retain an overall advantage from noncompliance. Moreover, allowing a violator to benefit from noncompliance punishes those who have complied by placing them at a competitive disadvantage. This creates a disincentive for compliance. For these reasons, it is Agency policy that penalties generally should, at a minimum, remove any significant economic benefits resulting from failure to comply with the law. This amount will be referred to as the "benefit component" of the penalty."
In other words, any company that chooses to violate federal regulations for profit should at a minimum lose all that profit and be penalized beyond that so that they lose money for doing it. If these companies made $4 billion and were only penalized $1 billion, it would be a net profit and they would continue as they had been.
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