In 2013, the National Highway Transportation Administration (NHTSA) insisted that Fiat Chrysler Automobiles (FCA), formerly known as Chrysler, recall 1.5 million Jeep Grand Cherokee and Jeep Liberty vehicles because they posed an unreasonable risk of a post-crash fire. The agency brokered a deal with the company, allowing it to compromise customer safety for an inadequate recall and a cheap, ineffective solution. Five years after the agency’s move, people are still dying because of fuel fed post-crash fires in Jeeps.
Deadly Jeep fuel tanks recalled
The agency began investigating the problem fuel tanks in 2010 after safety advocates raised concern about them. FCA staunchly resisted federal regulators’ investigation and recall efforts, denying any defect and saying that its vehicles met or exceeded the national safety standards when they were manufactured. It is the same mantra FCA keeps repeating even now.
Before implementing the recall, NHTSA says there were more than 50 fatal fires in the Jeep vehicles subject to the recall. One of those deaths was a 4-year-old boy, Remington “Remi” Walden, who was burned alive after his family’s 1999 Jeep Grand Cherokee was struck from behind in 2012.
A year after the recall was launched, however, people were still dying because of the defective fuel tanks, including 23-year-old Kayla White. White, who was eight months pregnant with a little boy she had already named Braedin, burned to death when her 2003 Jeep Liberty was rear-ended and flipped over. White’s Jeep was subject to the recall, but when she contacted the dealership, she was told the part was not available. It was a similar message many customers reported hearing. In a tragic coincidence, NHTSA sent a letter the day after White’s death reprimanding FCA for the recall’s slow progress and insufficient response to customers seeking a fix for their recalled vehicles.
As of 2015, 75 people had died due to post-crash fires caused by the rear-mounted fuel tanks. That year, a jury heard the Walden family’s claims against FCA and determined that the company was 99 percent responsible for Remi’s death. Evidence from the trial showed that, in 2009 – three years before the child’s death – NHTSA recommended recalling the model Jeep that killed Remi, but FCA refused. The jury returned a verdict for $150 million, which was lowered to $40 million by the trial judge and, last month, was upheld on an appeal to the Georgia Supreme Court. The ruling reinforced the message that FCA will be held accountable for the deaths caused by its defective fuel tanks. Later that same year, NHTSA would slap a then-record $105 million penalty on FCA for failing to properly execute the recalls.
Too little, too late
The deal brokered by NHTSA allowed FCA to move forward with its proposed remedy. FCA claimed that adding an original manufacturer equipment (OEM) trailer package or hitch to the bumper of affected vehicles would provide additional protection to the fuel tank in the event of a rear-end crash. NHTSA agreed to the remedy after its own testing showed “incremental benefit in low to medium speed impacts.”
A post-crash fire last August that claimed the life of an Ohio woman, Vicki Hill, 58, however, highlighted safety advocates’ concern that the FCA’s remedy was not sufficient. Hill’s 2007 Jeep Liberty was rear-ended while she was at a stop light on her way to work. Following the impact, fuel from the tank on Hill’s Jeep ignited, setting the Jeep on fire. Hill perished in the blaze. Although her Jeep was part of the recall and did receive the trailer hitch, it did not provide adequate protection during the rear-end crash.
A not-so new problem
The NHTSA deal also allowed FCA to conduct a scaled-down recall after the company convinced the agency that 1.2 million Jeep Cherokees, model years 1993-2001, were determined comparable to peer vehicles regarding the risk of fire during rear-end crashes. Those vehicles were not included in the recall and so the owners of those vehicles didn’t get the notice about the problem, nor the proposed remedy. They also didn’t receive an inspection as promised by FCA. As part of the recall agreement, FCA was to inspect any preinstalled aftermarket trailer hitch packages for sharp edges or protrusion risks. More than 600,000 Jeep Cherokee vehicles not recalled are still on the road.
One of those Jeeps was owned by Erica Scannavino, the daughter of Beasley Allen clients Bud and Mary Scannavino. Scannavino died last summer when she was trapped in her burning 1996 Jeep Cherokee after a rear-end crash. The bolts that attached the trailer hitch to Scannavino’s rear bumper protruded toward the rear-mounted fuel tank. An inspection of her Jeep, after the fatal crash, showed two holes where the bolts punctured the tank on impact. One of the holes had the bolt threads melted into the tank’s wall. Scannavino died because she was never warned of Jeep’s dangerous fuel tank nor the increased risk of fire due to the defective trailer hitch.