Late last week, a jury in Decatur, Georgia found Chrysler Group LLC (now, Fiat Chrysler Automobiles) guilty for the 2012 death of four-year-old Remington Walden. Walden died when a pickup rear-ended the Jeep Grand Cherokee he was riding in, which caused the Grand Cherokee to catch fire.
According to Reuters, the jury set a penalty of $150 million, of which Chrysler will have to pay $148.5 million. Chrysler subsequently issued a statement condemning the verdict. The automaker is considering an appeal.
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In June of 2013, tensions were running high between Chrysler and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.
NHTSA had received many complaints about the placement of the gas tank on the 1993-2004 Jeep Grand Cherokee and 2002-2007 Jeep Liberty. The tanks were positioned behind the rear axle of those models, which made them more susceptible to ruptures during rear-end collisions. And of course, when gas tanks rupture and fuel leaks, there's a dramatically higher risk of fire.
NHTSA wanted Chrysler to recall and repair the vehicles, which numbered around 2.7 million. Chrysler initially refused, insisting that the placement of the gas tanks was not only safe, but approved by regulators. The automaker said that the 44 deaths linked to those models at the time represented a fatality rate comparable to other vehicles.
Chrysler's refusal was very unusual -- at least until the Takata fiasco -- and the public took notice. After enduring criticism from a number of quarters, Chrysler eventually agreed to find a fix for the 1993-1998 Grand Cherokee and the 2002-2007 Liberty. The company also agreed to launch a "customer satisfaction campaign" for the 1999-2004 Grand Cherokee.
The fix for the recalled Jeeps took more than a year to implement, and it wasn't perfect -- short of completely repositioning the fuel tank, it couldn't be. But eventually, it got done.
During the trial in Georgia, plaintiffs argued that Chrysler failed to inform consumers about the potential safety hazards posed by the gas tank placement on the Jeep Grand Cherokee. (The model in which Walden was riding at the time of the collision was from 1999, which wasn't covered by the official recall.) Chrysler's lawyers countered that the boy wasn't killed by the fire that engulfed the Grand Cherokee, but rather by the driver that rear-ended the vehicle.
Over the course of Thursday afternoon, the jury deliberated, ultimately siding with the plaintiffs and awarding Walden's family $150 million. The jury found that Chrysler had acted with "reckless and wanton disregard" and determined that the automaker was 99 percent at fault for the accident. That put Chrysler's portion of the fine at $148.5 million. The remaining one percent will be paid by the driver of the other vehicle.
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In a blog post published after the verdict was issued, FCA said that the company and its employees "extend their deepest sympathies to the parents of young Remington Walden". However, those sympathies did little to ease the automaker's frustration with the ruling. In a separate statement, FCA said:
"FCA US is disappointed and will consider an appeal of this verdict. It is unfortunate that under Georgia Law the jury was prevented from taking into account extensive data submitted to NHTSA during a three year investigation, which included more than 20 years of rear impact accident data for tens of millions of vehicles. 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."