A group of Beasley Allen’s Atlanta lawyers recently settled an automobile accident lawsuit against Chrysler and a trailer hitch manufacturer involving a Jeep Cherokee that caught fire after being rear-ended by another car. The impact caused the Jeep to catch fire, trapping and killing the driver, Erica Scannavino.
Ms. Scannavino, 32, of Kennesaw, Georgia, was driving home in her 1996 Jeep Cherokee on July 29, 2017. She was stopped at an intersection to take a left onto her street when a 2011 Volkswagen Jetta crashed into the left rear of the Jeep, causing it to roll down the shoulder of the street. The Jeep came to a rest on the passenger side and caught fire. The driver of the Jetta, Kareem Fakih, was uninjured in the collision. He tried to get Ms. Scannavino out of the Jeep but was unsuccessful. The vehicle became engulfed in flames and Ms. Scannavino burned to death.
The accident was especially tragic because Ms. Scannavino would have lived had it not been for deadly defects that made the Jeep Cherokee prone to fire and explosion – design flaws that Chrysler had known existed for years but failed to correct.
Witnesses told investigators that the accident was minor and nobody thought the Jeep would burst into flames. There were no intrusions in the Jeep’s cabin. Ms. Scannavino survived the collision only to be burned alive in its aftermath.
Deadly Gas Tank Location
The 1996 Grand Cherokee was designed with the gas tank mounted behind the rear axle in a known “crush zone” that left it unprotected in collisions. Beasley Allen auto accident attorneys Chris Glover, Greg Allen, and Alyssa Baskam, who filed the lawsuit for Ms. Scannavino’s parents, were able to show that Chrysler knew the gas tank’s placement in that crush zone presented a significant threat to vehicle occupants. The automaker knew that foreseeable rear impacts to the Jeep model could easily trigger fires and explosions. Yet, the company allowed 1.2 million Jeep Cherokees to remain on the road without fixing the defect and without so much as warning drivers like Ms. Scannavino.
An investigation of Chrysler’s internal documents going back as far as the 1960s found that Chrysler clearly knew it needed to move the gas tank from the rear to a “midship” location ahead of the rear axle, where it would be protected by the frame rails.
While American Motors Corporation designed the Jeep Cherokee in the late 1970s and early 1980s, Chrysler took over the Jeep line in 1987 but made no safety improvements to the Cherokee’s fuel system through 2001, even as it moved away from rear-mounted fuel tanks. Chrysler’s ownership of Jeep and its refusal to fix the fuel tank problem put the company in violation of its own safety standards.
Moreover, Chrysler documents show that the automaker knew of the 1996 Jeep Cherokee’s serious fuel tank dangers when it warned through the safety recalls of certain Jeep Grand Cherokee and Liberty vehicles. Yet the company still refused to recall the 1996 Cherokee, and it never warned its customers and service providers to be on the lookout for certain trailer hitches that could puncture the gas tank.
According to the Scannavino family’s auto accident lawsuit, Chrysler made its Grand Cherokee models with the gas tank toward the rear of the vehicle. It didn’t change this configuration until 2005, after the federal government said it would mandate better standards to protect fuel tanks from rear impacts.
Trailer Hitches Intensify the Dangers
The auto accident lawsuit also alleged that the manufacturer of the trailer hitch on Ms. Scannavino’s Jeep Cherokee — Horizon Global Corporation— was at fault as well for making a product it should have known was dangerous. When the VW Jetta struck Ms. Scannavino’s Jeep Cherokee, the defectively designed after-market hitch protruded into the gas tank and punctured it.
“The combination of the defectively designed trailer hitch and the placement of the fuel tank on the Jeep Cherokee and other Chrysler vehicles has been one of the most dangerous vehicle-component combinations conceived.”
– Chris Glover, Beasley Allen lawyer
According to the Scannavino’s lawsuit, Chrysler did not provide sufficient attachment space to the already flimsy unibody frame. Chrysler addressed this problem on the Jeep Cherokee Original Equipment Manufacturer (OEM) trailer hitch by beefing up the frame with a full-length backing plate. This plate is the full length of the trailer hitch attachment point and, in essence, makes the frame thicker at that point.
However, unlike Chrysler, Horizon uses much smaller square backing plates, which fail to keep the trailer hitch attached to the frame during the impact. As a result, the trailer hitch breaks free from the frame, significantly increasing the potential for the hitch to pierce the 1996 Jeep Cherokee’s defectively designed fuel tank configuration.
In addition to knowing that the position of the Jeep’s gas tank was highly precarious, Chrysler also knew this danger was exacerbated by the use of certain trailer hitches, like the one made by Horizon Global.
“All cases are important, but I’m extremely proud of the work our firm did representing these clients. I can’t imagine losing a daughter much less losing one they way this family did. We poured our hearts into this case and am happy our clients were able to get this measure of justice. They wanted to take a stand to help keep this from happening to another family and I’m confident we did just that.” said Chris Glover.
The case was set for trial in Gwinnet County Circuit Court. The Scanavino family settled with Chrysler and the trailer hitch manufacturer for confidential amounts.