Fiat Loses $150 Million Verdict in Boy’s Jeep Fire Death

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1999 Grand Cherokee Fire
A 1999 Grand Cherokee in flames after being struck in the rear by a pickup truck. Source: U.S. Department of Transportation via Bloomberg

Fiat Chrysler Automobiles NV was ordered to pay $150 million to the family of a 4-year-old boy who burned to death in a crash after a jury found the carmaker recklessly designed the gas tank for the 1999 Jeep Grand Cherokee.

The verdict Thursday in rural Bainbridge, Georgia, comes in the first trial over fires involving several older Jeep models when struck from behind, a scenario responsible for at least 75 deaths since the late 1990s. A second case involving a similar crash is scheduled for trial in California in January, lawyers said.

The trial over the 2012 death of Remington Walden is renewing demand by safety advocates for a massive recall of older Grand Cherokees and Jeep Liberties, which all have gas tanks about 11 inches from the back of the vehicle.

The verdict’s fallout “could be substantial” for Chrysler, spurring lawsuits and possible regulatory action, said law professor Carl Tobias at the University of Richmond in Virginia.

“This huge verdict will encourage plaintiffs, potential plaintiffs and their counsel to pursue more vigorously cases already filed, to file new ones that might have been unclear or seemed longshots,” he said in an e-mailed message.

‘Another Look’

The verdict might also lead the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration “to take another look at the rear-end fire issues with Chrysler vehicles and maybe even consider recalls or other actions,” Tobias said.

Starting for some 2005 models, the tanks on the Jeeps were moved to a more secure “midship” location between the front and rear axles. Fiat Chrysler says both designs are safe and that the earlier version met or exceeded all federal safety standards.

Fiat Chrysler contended the driver of the pickup truck that struck the Walden Jeep was to blame for the accident. The driver was sentenced to eight years in prison after pleading guilty to vehicular homicide, and was also a defendant in the suit. The jury found that driver 1 percent at fault and Fiat 99 percent at fault.

The jury awarded the boy’s parents $30 million for his pain and suffering and $120 million for the loss of his life.

Considering Appeal

Michael Palese, a Fiat spokesman, said the company was disappointed and will consider appealing the verdict, saying it was unfortunate that under Georgia law the jury was prevented from taking into account data submitted to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

“This and other information provided the basis for NHTSA’s determination that the 1999 Jeep Grand Cherokee did not pose an unreasonable risk to motor vehicle safety,” Palese said.

The family’s lawyer, James Butler, focused his case on the motivation for the 2005 redesign. He claimed the carmaker destroyed a database of engineering documents about the change to conceal the real reason the fuel tank was moved: to fix a safety flaw the company was well aware of yet denied in public.

“Chrysler consciously chose to put American families at risk, and gambled that juries would not figure it out,” Butler’s son and co-counsel Jeb Butler said in a statement after the verdict.

NHTSA included the 1999 Grand Cherokee model in an investigation of Jeep gas-tank fires and determined in June 2013 that it was safe. Two other models were recalled to have towing hitches added to the back for extra protection in crashes.

75 Deaths

By the time the deal was reached, 75 people had died in accidents involving Jeep fuel tank fires since 1998, according to government data. At least another 9 have died since then, according to the Center For Auto Safety, an advocacy group.

The recall didn’t fix the problem, Clarence Ditlow, executive director of the Washington-based advocacy group, said in an e-mailed statement Thursday. He called on NHTSA to reopen the investigation.

None of the Fiat Chrysler executives who gave depositions under oath could give details when asked by Butler why the fuel tank was moved, or who made the decision, the lawyer alleged.

Chrysler said older federal standards included a rule that fuel tanks survive a crash of 30 miles an hour, later increased to 50 miles per hour.

In preparation for the tougher rule, Chrysler crash-tested a 1999 Grand Cherokee, the model in which the Waldens’ son died, with a device striking it from behind at 50 miles a hour.

Fire Threat

The threat to the fuel tank was so obvious that Chrysler surrounded the tank with steel protection for the test, the boy’s parents alleged in court papers.

The boy’s parents allege Fiat Chrysler knew that cars in real-world crashes would strike Jeeps from behind at more than 30 miles per hour, regardless of what the minimum standard was. Customers should have been warned, they said.

The vehicle that struck the Jeep as the boy’s aunt was about to turn left might have been going as fast as 50 miles an hour, Butler said. The difference in the speed of the vehicles may have been closer to 20 miles per hour, he said.

The Georgia jury’s award is the fifth-largest of 2015.

For auto product defect verdicts, it’s the eighth-largest jury award in U.S. history, according to data compiled by Bloomberg. The largest in an auto case, for $4.9 billion against General Motors in 1999, also came in a lawsuit in which the plaintiffs alleged the car’s fuel tank was placed too close to the rear bumper. That award was reduced by the trial judge and case ultimately settled.

The case is Walden v. Chrysler Group LLC, 12CV472, Superior Court, Decatur County, Georgia (Bainbridge).

(An earlier version of this story corrected the day the verdict was issued.)

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