The Georgia Supreme court just upheld a $40 million dollar verdict against Chrysler in a case where a little boy burned to death in a Jeep Grand Cherokee. The problem was a plastic fuel tank, at the rear of the jeep, which ignited, so that the child died. That, in and of itself, is tragic. But it gets worse.
The Center for Auto Safety knew that the Jeep’s design was unsafe, and petitioned for a recall of the 1993-2004 model Grand Cherokees. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, however, didn’t do that. According to a present press release from the Center for Auto safety,
Had the . . . 2009 petition for a full recall of the 1993-2004 Jeep Grand Cherokee been acted on in a timely and effective manner, Remi would likely be alive today. Instead, he burned to death at the age of four in a vehicle that should have been designed for his protection, but was designed with a plastic fuel tank located behind the rear axle.
If the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) had listened to the advice of its own internal experts in 2013, when they recommended the recall not only of the 1993-2004 Jeep Grand Cherokee, but of the 2002-2007 Jeep Liberty as well for the same fire risk, as many as 50 other deaths, including two just last summer in Ohio, probably would have been prevented.
Instead, in the summer of 2013, in a back room in an airport in Detroit, just weeks after career experts recommended a comprehensive approach to address this deadly defect, DOT failed. The agency’s political leadership negotiated with FCA CEO, Sergio Marchionne, to recall only a smaller group of vehicles, and approved what has again and again proven to be an ineffective “fix,” of attaching a trailer hitch to the back of the vehicle. Even Chrysler’s former Vice President of engineering testified under oath that the “tow package [which includes the trailer hitch] does not protect the [fuel] tank.” The center for Auto Safety, “Georgia Supreme Court Rules Against Chrysler in Jeep Fire Case – Center for Auto Safety Renews Demand for Complete Recall,” March 16, 2018, https://www.autosafety.org/georgia-supreme-court-rules-against-chrysler-in-jeep-fire-case-center-for-auto-safety-renews-demand-for-complete-recall/
The original jury verdict was $150 million dollars, which the judge later reduced to $40 million. Chrysler appealed, and lost. Automotive News reports that Fiat Chrysler, which manufactures the Jeep, was “disappointed in the decision.” David Shepardson, “FCA loses appeal of fatal Jeep-fire case before Georgia Supreme Court,” March 15, 2018, Automotive news, http://www.autonews.com/article/20180315/OEM/180319788/fca-loses-appeal-of-fatal-jeep-fire-case-before-georgia-supreme-court.
Here’s the kicker: One of the grounds for the appeal was Chrysler’s claim that “it was prejudicial to raise Fiat Chrysler CEO Sergio Marchionne’s compensation, which totaled more than $68 million, during the trial. But the Supreme Court concluded that “the award was proper, in part because Marchionne was ‘alleged to have specifically interjected himself in a federal safety investigation to the detriment’ of [the boy’s] family.”
So here’s why tort law is important: At a time when a CEO makes $68 million dollars from knowingly selling dangerous and unsafe motor vehicles, so that little kids burn to death; and the governmental regulatory agencies fail to do their jobs, tort law is the only remedy that people have, to protect their health, lives, safety, and the health, lives and safety of those they love.
Congratulations to James Butler, a Founder of the American Museum of Tort Law, for his untiring and inspiring devotion to the child’s family, and the cause of justice in this case.