After deliberating for fewer than two hours a Georgia jury found Fiat Chrysler (formerly Chrysler) responsible for the death of a four-year-old boy in a fiery 2012 Jeep auto accident. The child was killed when the Jeep driven by his aunt was hit from behind by a pick-up truck. The fuel tank leaked, engulfing the Jeep in flames and killing the boy. According to the jury, Chrysler acted with “reckless or wanton disregard for human life in the design or sale” of the Jeep SUV and failed to alert consumers that the vehicle was hazardous. The jury said Chrysler was 99% at fault and the truck driver was only 1% responsible. A $150 million verdict included $30 million for the child’s pain and suffering and $120 million for the full value of his life. A Fiat Chrysler spokesperson said the company would consider an appeal because the jury didn’t consider data submitted to federal regulators who determined the vehicle didn’t pose “an unreasonable risk to motor vehicle safety.”
After Clarence Ditlow, head of the Center for Auto Safety, filed a complaint with the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), the agency began investigating the Grand Cherokee and Jeep Liberty. At one point, auto industry regulators tied 51 deaths to the fuel tanks and consumer crusader Ralph Nader called the SUVs ”modern day Pintos for soccer moms.” Chrysler argued the vehicles were not defective and that the investigation should be closed. During a closed door meeting in 2013, Chrysler successfully convinced NHTSA to allow the auto manufacturer to recall only 1.56 million Jeeps from the initially recommended 2.7 million. Under the recall, Chrysler agreed to install trailer hitches in the rear as an extra layer of protection.
Dealers installed the hitch, but not the wiring or other heavy-duty components needed to tow a trailer safely. They were asked to tell customers the hitch was not suitable for towing. Government testing showed the hitches protected the tanks in crashes up to 40 mph when a stationary Jeep was hit from behind, but at higher speeds, the hitch wouldn’t help. By November 2013, only 3% of the affected vehicles had been fixed. NHTSA even received complaints that owners were “being turned away” and told their vehicles were “safe to drive without the remedy.”
It’s no surprise that safety advocates called the size of the recall and the fix inadequate saying Chrysler knew it had a problem and wanted to get away with the cheapest possible fix. This “Band-Aid” approach, by a company that would not exist today if not for a $10 billion bailout, is an insult to the American taxpayers and Fiat Chrysler customers. But, what about NHTSA; why did it accept such a solution to this known deadly problem?
According to Ditlow, over time NHTSA has been captured by the industry it regulates. He points out that prior to 2006, NHTSA welcomed outside complaints. In fact, the agency frequently requested copies of complaints from Ralph Nader and the Center for Auto Safety. In the 1970s, NHTSA aggressively litigated cases to force recalls. A perfect example was when former NHTSA Administrator Joan Claybrook saved lives by standing up to Ford and demanding crash tests and an improved remedy for the exploding Pinto. Beginning in the ’80s, however, numerous officials, who served as chief counsel to the agency, have gone on to become consultants, lawyers or expert witnesses for auto companies. Others, such as Jacqueline Glassman, worked as an attorney for Chrysler prior to working at NHTSA. In January 2014, the same month the agency approved the inadequate Jeep fuel tank recall, David Strickland went to work for a law firm representing Chrysler.
What will it take on the part of NHTSA to prevent future recalls, given that Fiat Chryslers, and other automakers, will always place sales and profits over safety? Although it may take a major effort to reform the agency, new NHTSA Administrator Mark Rosekind is wasting no time sending a strong message to automakers that if they don’t shape up he will be knocking at their door. In fact, today Rosekind confirmed he is considering reopening the investigation into the Jeep SUV gas tank fires, saying Fiat Chrysler needs to do more to fix recalled vehicles.
Rosekind is also critical of the auto industry’s safety culture, recommending its leaders look to the aviation world as a model for how to approach safety, with zero deaths as the goal. He said it’s time for auto makers to be proactive.
Mark Bello is the CEO and General Counsel of Lawsuit Financial Corporation, a pro-justice lawsuit funding company.
Attorney, certified civil mediator, and award-winning author of the Zachary Blake Betrayal Series—Mark Bello is also the CEO of Lawsuit Financial and the country’s leading expert in providing non-recourse lawsuit funding to plaintiffs involved in pending litigation. He is also a member of the State Bar of Michigan, a sustaining member of the Michigan Association for Justice, and a member of the American Association for Justice.