A proposed class of drivers filed suit recently against Fiat Chrysler Automobiles (FCA) in a New York federal court. The lawsuit is over the transmission problem that was responsible for the death of Star Trek actor Anton Yelchin. The complaint alleges that the company continued to market and sell cars with defective gear shifters even after it became clear they were unsafe. It’s alleged further that soon after FCA started selling cars with the faulty electronic gear shift system, which was supplied by ZF Friedrichshaffen AG in 2011, FCA received complaints from customers who thought their cars were in park when they were actually in drive, causing rollaways and collisions. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) had received several complaints by December 2013 and FCA had started to phase out use of the shifters in 2014. However, FCA didn’t issue a recall until April 2016.
In February 2011, FCA started using the ZF electronic gear shift system, which uses electronic signals and not traditional mechanical links to convey gear switch requests to the transmission. The technology uses a monostable shifter, which doesn’t stay in place when a driver shifts gears, but springs back like a “joystick.” NHTSA has received hundreds of complaints about the device, which the lawsuit says “clearly describe a pattern of failed gear selection.”
In August 2015, NHTSA’s Office of Defects Investigation (ODI) started looking into the Jeep Grand Cherokee. Findings in February catalogued 306 rollaway incidents, 117 of which ended in crashes, 28 involving injuries. FCA announced it had initiated a recall on cars with the shifter in April 2016. FCA sent a letter to all owners and lessees warning them that their “vehicle may roll away, striking and injuring you, your passengers or bystanders if the vehicle’s engine is left running, the parking brake is not engaged and the transmission is not in the ‘PARK’ position before exiting the vehicle.”
On June 24, 2016, five days after Anton Yelchin was crushed to death when his parked Jeep Grand Cherokee rolled into him, FCA issued a follow-up recall notice offering a software patch that would install an “auto park” function to avoid rollaways. NHTSA closed its engineering analysis after the recall was announced, but complaints continued to come in about other transmission issues not related to parked cars. It’s alleged in the complaint that the software patch has “proven ineffective,” and that it didn’t address dangers caused by other gear changes, such as when a driver makes a three-point turn. It appears that FCA has not offered any additional remedial measures to resolve the safety issues associated with the ZF Shifter.
This suit seeks certification for a nationwide class and a New York subclass of anyone who purchased or leased an FCA car with the ZF shifter. Those models include the 2012-2014 Chrysler 300, the 2012-2014 Dodge Charger and the 2014-2015 Jeep Grand Cherokee. The nationwide class could include more than 800,000 U.S. drivers, according to the complaint.
The suit accuses FCA of violating the Magnuson-Moss Warranty Act, the New York Deceptive Practices Act and the New York False Advertising Act. The complaint also includes claims for breach of implied warranty of merchantability, breach of express warranty and unjust enrichment. The class seeks compensatory damages, treble damages, statutory damages, punitive damages, award restitution, disgorgement of revenues to class, award prejudgment interest and attorneys’ fees.
The Plaintiff in the suit is represented by Douglas G. Blankinship and Jeremiah Frei-Pearson of Finkelstein Blankinship Frei-Pearson & Garber LLP. The case is Lynd v. FCA US LLC in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of New York.