June 9, 2015, PLLR E-Newsletter | The American Association For Justice Archive

June 9, 2015, PLLR E-Newsletter

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Fuel tank rupture causes fatal fire

The plaintiffs alleged that the location of the Jeep’s fuel tank posed a deadly fire hazard. They claimed Chrysler had known of the danger for decades and failed to warn of the defect. The jury awarded $150 million. Walden v. Chrysler Group LLC.

Remington Cole Walden, 4, was riding in a booster seat in the rear of a 1999 Jeep Grand Cherokee driven by his aunt. As she was preparing to turn, Bryan Harrell, driving a pickup truck, rear-ended the Jeep. On impact, the Jeep’s fuel tank ruptured, and a fuel-fed fire erupted. Remington suffered fatal burns. He is survived by his parents and grandparents.

Remington’s parents, individually and on behalf of his estate, sued Chrysler Group LLC, alleging that the location of the Jeep’s fuel tank—just 11 inches from the rear of the SUV and hanging down 6 inches from the bottom of the vehicle—posed a deadly fire hazard. The plaintiffs asserted that Chrysler had known for decades that the tank’s location made it vulnerable to rupture and fire in rear impacts and that the company had acted with reckless or wanton disregard for human life in designing and selling the vehicle. Chrysler reportedly admitted that it could have placed the tank in the “midship” location, forward of the rear axle. Had it done so, the plaintiffs contended, the tank would not have ruptured, and Remington would have escaped with relatively minor injuries.

The plaintiffs also alleged that Chrysler failed to warn of the risk of fuel tank rupture.

The plaintiffs discovered evidence of more than 50 rear-end collisions in which the gas tanks of Jeeps with rear tanks ruptured and leaked. The trial court permitted the plaintiffs to introduce 16 such incidents, together with evidence that Chrysler was aware of those incidents.

The jury also heard evidence that in June 2013, after a lengthy investigation, NHTSA’s Office of Defects Investigation (ODI) notified Chrysler that it believed Jeeps with rear fuel tanks were defective. Several days later, Fiat-Chrysler Chairman Sergio Marchionne met privately with then-NHTSA administrator David Strickland and then-Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood. ODI professionals were not invited. As a result of the meeting, NHTSA permitted Chrysler to recall some Jeeps and add trailer hitches to them for “incremental protection in certain low speed impacts.” The plaintiffs had evidence that, about two years before the June 2013 meeting, Chrysler’s former head of engineering had testified that a trailer hitch does not protect the gas tank. The trial court excluded the in-house engineer’s testimony on this point, however.

The lawsuit also named Harrell, alleging that he was negligent in rear-ending the Jeep. He admitted negligence.

Chrysler argued, among other things, that a different design would not have prevented severe injuries here because this was a high-speed collision in which the other driver was traveling at least 51 m.p.h. when he rear-ended the Jeep. In response, the plaintiffs presented evidence that neither driver was injured in the collision, that Remington’s only injury other than the fatal burns was a leg fracture, and that the impact was less severe than Chrysler alleged because the Jeep was moving at the time of the impact. In addition, Chrysler’s accident reconstruction expert admitted under cross-examination that many of the gas tanks on rear-tank Jeeps had failed even in low-speed collisions.

The jury found that Chrysler had acted with reckless and wanton disregard for human life in designing and selling the 1999 Grand Cherokee, that it failed to warn of the defect, and that actions by Chrysler and Harrell proximately caused Remington’s death. The jury awarded $150 million, allocating fault at 99 percent to Chrysler and 1 percent to Harrell. The award included $120 million for Remington’s wrongful death and $30 million to his parents for pain and suffering. Chrysler has filed a motion for a new trial.

Citation: Walden v. Chrysler Group LLC, No. 12-CV-472 (Ga. Super. Ct. Decatur Cnty. Apr. 2, 2015).

Plaintiff counsel: AAJ member James E. Butler Jr., Columbus, Ga.; Jeb Butler, Atlanta; David T. Rohwedder, Columbus, Ga.; George Floyd, Bainbridge, Ga.; and Cathy Cox, Blairsville, Ga.

Plaintiff experts: G. Buchner, accident reconstruction, Tallahassee, Fla.; Allan Kam, transportation regulations, Bethesda, Md.; and Frederick Arndt, fuel-fed fires, Phoenix.

Defense experts: Jon Olson, engineering, Dearborn, Mich.; and Stephen Fenton, accident reconstruction, Englewood, Colo.