On June 3, 2013, the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration (NHTSA) wrote a letter to Chrysler, stating that a safety-related defect exists in 2.7 million Jeep Grand Cherokee and Jeep Liberty vehicles, and demanding that Chrysler recall them. The model years for the Grand Cherokee were 1993-2004, and the model years for the Jeep Liberty were 2002-2007. The alleged defect is related to the rear fuel tanks, which cause an unreasonable risk of a fire occurring in the event of a rear-impact collision. Specifically, there are concerns about the likelihood that the fuel tanks will leak gasoline and catch fire in rear-impacts, resulting in serious injuries and fire-related deaths.
There is presently a lawsuit pending in the Superior Court of Decatur County, Georgia, involving the death of 4 year old Remi Walden, who was a passenger in a 1999 Jeep Grand Cherokee when it was struck in the rear by a Dodge Dakota truck. The collision occurred in Bainbridge, Georgia. Remi was properly restrained in his booster seat in the backset of the Grand Cherokee when the rear-impact collision occurred. The Grand Cherokee, which had a fuel tank located just inside the rear bumper of the car, ruptured upon impact, causing a fire. The Grand Cherokee was quickly engulfed in flames, witnesses were unable to rescue Remi, and he died from fire-related injuries. Remi Walden’s death was one of the incidents referred to by NHTSA in its recall letter to Chrysler.
In the 1970s, 27 deaths were attributed to Ford Pinto rear-impact fires. There was a 1972 accident which resulted in the famous court case known as Grimshaw v. Ford Motor Company, in which a California appellate court ultimately upheld a compensatory damages award of $2.5 million and punitive damages of $3.5 million against Ford, ostensibly because Ford had been aware of the design defects for several years but had decided against altering the design. It was later discovered that Ford had done a “cost-benefit analysis” to compare the cost of a recall and repairs against the cost of settlements or verdicts for injuries, deaths, and vehicles burning up.
Given this background, it appears that automakers have known since the 1970s that putting gas tanks in the rear of a vehicle where they are unprotected by the vehicle’s frame places the vehicle occupants in grave danger. In the case of the above-referenced Jeep Grand Cherokees and Jeep Liberties, the fuel tanks are located behind the rear axle, adjacent to the rear bumper, and they hang down below the rear bumper. This location is commonly known as the “crush zone,” which is the location where the vehicle is most vulnerable to rear-impacts.
Interestingly, Chrysler has in recent years relocated the fuel tank in its newer model Jeep Grand Cherokee and Jeep Liberty vehicles, locating it ahead of the rear axle, where it is protected from rear-impact. However, Chrysler has failed to warn owners and refused to recall its older model year Jeeps in which the fuel tanks are located in the rear crush zone. In response to the June 3rd letter from NHTSA, Chrysler stated that it will not recall these Jeeps, it does not agree there is any problem, and it vowed to fight the recall effort. Meanwhile, the parents of young Remi Walden await their day in court.