Chrysler must pay US$150 mil. in Jeep fire death


A jury in Ge­or­gia has awarded US$150 mil­lion to the fam­ily of a 4-year-old boy killed when a Jeep Grand Chero­kee ex­ploded into flames three years ago af­ter be­ing rear-ended. The jury said Chrysler, the maker of Jeeps, must pay nearly the full amount.

Ju­rors in De­catur County ruled Thurs­day that Chrysler acted with reck­less dis­re­gard for hu­man life in sell­ing the fam­ily of Rem­ing­ton “Remi” Walden a 1999 Jeep with a gas tank mounted be­hind the rear axle.

Walden, of Bain­bridge, Ge­or­gia, was killed when the Jeep driven by his aunt was hit from be­hind by a pickup truck in March 2012. The fuel tank leaked, en­gulf­ing the Jeep in flames and killing the boy.

The ver­dict comes nearly two years af­ter Chrysler com­pro­mised with a fed­eral safety agency and agreed to a scaled-down re­call of some older-model Jeeps with the rear-mounted tanks. The tanks have lit­tle struc­ture to pro­tect them if struck from be­hind, mak­ing them sus­cep­ti­ble to punc­tures and fires.

Fed­eral doc­u­ments show that at least 75 peo­ple have died in postcrash fires be­cause of the rear­mounted fuel tanks.

The 11-woman, one-man jury ruled af­ter a nine day trial that Chrysler was 99 per­cent at fault for the crash and the pickup driver was 1 per­cent at fault. Ju­rors also determined that Chrysler failed to warn the fam­ily of the haz­ards of driv­ing the Jeep. They ruled that the Waldens should get US$30 mil­lion for Remi’s pain and suf­fer­ing and US$120 mil­lion for the full value of his life, ac­cord­ing to a ver­dict form.

Mike Palese, spokesman for Chrysler par­ent com­pany FCA US, said the com­pany is dis­ap­pointed with the ver­dict and would ap­peal. Chrysler, he said, was pre­vented from pre­sent­ing data sub­mit­ted to fed­eral safety reg­u­la­tors show­ing that the ve­hi­cles did not pose an un­rea­son­able safety risk.

“The ve­hi­cles are not de­fec­tive,” Palese said.

Although the ver­dict is large, it isn’t the largest judg­ment ever against an au­tomaker in a per­sonal in­jury case. In 1999, for ex­am­ple, a Cal­i­for­nia jury or­dered Gen­eral Mo­tors Co. to pay US$4.9 bil­lion to Pa­tri­cia An­der­son and Jo Tigner af­ter their Chevrolet Malibu was rear-ended and burst into flames. In that case, four chil­dren in the back seat were se­verely in­jured. The amount was re­duced on ap­peal to US$1.2 bil­lion.

And in 2004, a woman para- lyzed when her Ford Ex­plorer rolled over won a US$369 mil­lion ver­dict from Ford Mo­tor Co. That was later re­duced to US$83 mil­lion, which Ford even­tu­ally paid af­ter ex­haust­ing its ap­peals all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Carl To­bias, a pro­fes­sor at the Uni­ver­sity of Rich­mond law school, said it will be dif­fi­cult for Chrysler to over­turn a jury ver­dict, but an ap­peals court might re­duce the amount. He ques­tioned Chrysler’s de­ci­sion to take the case to trial be­cause of the hor­rific na­ture of the crash.

To­bias said the Walden ver­dict is likely to lead oth­ers to sue the com­pany or to speed along cases that are al­ready in the sys­tem.

Chrysler has long con­tended that the Jeeps were no more danger­ous than com­pa­ra­ble SUVs built at the time. It used that ar­gu­ment to con­vince the Na­tional High­way Traf­fic Safety Ad­min­is­tra­tion in 2013 to al­low it to re­call 1.56 mil­lion Jeeps af­ter the gov­ern­ment agency ini­tially rec­om­mended that 2.7 mil­lion be re­paired. Un­der the re­call, Chrysler agreed to in­stall trailer hitches in the rear as an ex­tra layer of pro­tec­tion.

Safety ad­vo­cates have called the size of the re­call and the fix in­ad­e­quate. On Thurs­day, Clarence Dit­low, the head of the Cen­ter for Auto Safety, called on the gov­ern- ment to re­open against Chrysler.

NHTSA spokesman Gor­don Trow­bridge said late Thurs­day that the agency mon­i­tors legal de­ci­sions and “if new in­for­ma­tion emerges, we take it into ac­count and act ap­pro­pri­ately.”

At­lanta at­tor­ney Jim But­ler ar­gued dur­ing the trial that Remi’s death re­sulted from the fire be­cause of the gas tank’s poor po­si­tion. The child was on his way to a ten­nis les­son when the SUV was struck from be­hind.

“Nu­mer­ous wit­nesses saw Remi strug­gling to es­cape and heard him scream­ing for help,” the fam­ily’s law­suit al­leged.

The law­suit al­leged that Chrysler placed the gas tank in a “crush zone” be­hind the rear axle and knew the lo­ca­tion was danger­ous, and that the com­pany failed to pro­tect the gas tank against rup­tur­ing.

Trial tes­ti­mony showed that the com­pro­mise with safety reg­u­la­tors over the re­call was worked out in a Chicago air­port meet­ing be­tween Fiat Chrysler CEO Ser­gio Mar­chionne, for­mer Trans­porta­tion Sec­re­tary Ray LaHood and ex-NHTSA Ad­min­is­tra­tor David Strick­land. Dit­low noted that Strick­land now works for Ven­able, a law firm that has rep­re­sented Chrysler.



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