Chrysler is found at fault in Jeep fire death

A Ge­or­gia jury or­ders the au­tomaker to pay $150 mil­lion to fam­ily of boy who was killed.

Los Angeles Times - - BUSINESS - As­so­ci­ated press

A jury in Ge­or­gia has awarded $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.

The Bain­bridge, Ga., boy 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.

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 post-crash fires be­cause of the rear-mounted fuel tanks.

The 11-woman, one-man jury ruled af­ter a nine-day trial that Chrysler was 99% at fault for the crash and the pickup driver was 1% 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 $30 mil­lion for Remi’s pain and suf­fer­ing and $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 $4.9 bil­lion to Pa­tri­cia An­der­son and Jo Tigner af­ter their Chevrolet Malibu was rearended and burst into flames. In that case, four chil­dren in the back seat were se­verely in­jured. The amount was re­duced on ap­peal to $1.2 bil­lion.

And in 2004, a woman par­a­lyzed when her Ford Ex­plorer rolled over won a $369-mil­lion ver­dict from Ford Mo­tor Co. That was later re­duced to $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 would 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 per­suade 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 gov­ern­ment to re­open its in­ves­ti­ga­tion against Chrysler.

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

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