Kayla White crash probe, lawsuit expected in 2015

Michael Wayland
The Detroit News

A lawsuit against Chrysler Group LLC over the death of Kayla White — a 23-year-old pregnant woman killed in a fire when her recalled Jeep was hit from behind on the Lodge Freeway earlier this month — is not expected to be filed until next year, according to a lawyer representing the woman's family.

Southfield attorney Gerald Thurswell said Monday that he does not plan to file anything until "all the facts" are released, including a crash investigation and reconstruction report that Michigan State Police expect to be completed in early January.

"We're going to file a lawsuit, but we're not going to jump the gun," Thurswell told The Detroit News during a phone interview. "I will not be filing the lawsuit until next year."

Following the Nov. 11 crash, police said the investigation would take four to six weeks. Michigan State Police Lt. Mike Shaw on Monday extended that time frame, saying the report is now expected in early January. He said the timing is based on how many cases are going through the system, adding that "a good reconstruction" takes time.

White was killed when her 2003 Jeep Liberty was struck from behind near Telegraph Road, causing it to overturn and catch fire. She died of injuries caused by flames that engulfed her car, according to the Oakland County Medical Examiner's Office. An autopsy determined the cause of death was burns and smoke inhalation.

White's SUV was part of a Chrysler recall campaign last year of 1.56 million 2002-07 Jeep Libertys and 1993-2004 Jeep Grand Cherokees at risk of catching fire when struck from behind. The automaker issued the callback following a request from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration after an investigation found the defect was connected to 37 fatal rear-end collisions resulting in 51 deaths — including at least five fatal crashes involving Libertys that resulted in seven deaths.

Gas tanks on the older Jeeps are located below the rear bumper and behind the rear axle, and can rupture and leak gasoline if the SUVs are rear-ended. The fix that NHTSA called for involves installation of a trailer hitch to protect the gas tank.

However, the agency acknowledged Thursday that trailer hitches will not offer much protection in high-speed crashes. It said its investigation found hitches provide incremental safety benefits in certain low- and moderate-speed crashes.

Chrysler has said since 2013 that the fix would not address high-speed crashes in which most of the reported deaths have occurred.

The speed of the initial impact involving White's death is unknown, but was enough to cause the two cars in front of her to be impacted and cause thousands of dollars in damages to the car at the front of the line.

According to an initial crash report obtained by The News, Clarence Quentin Heath was unable to stop his 2002 Cadillac STS as traffic slowed in the northbound right lane on the Lodge. Police said the 69-year-old Beverly Hills resident was not paying attention.

The Cadillac struck White's SUV, forcing it into a 2014 Nissan Cube, which then struck a 2015 Lincoln MKC as it slowed for traffic.

Yan Bai, driver of the MKC, said damage to her vehicle — the last in the four-car collision — was estimated at $9,000. Bai, who was driving to her West Bloomfield home from Detroit, said by the time she got out of her car following the collision, White's SUV was in flames.

"I didn't see anything," she said Monday during a phone interview. "I heard it and I felt the impact to my car. At that time, it was decent traffic flow."

Bai and the other drivers did not report any injuries.

Heath, who could face charges, and Bradford Winship Mackinnon, driver of the Cube, did not respond to messages left by The News.

Chrysler has continued to extend its "deepest sympathies" for the family and friends of White, but has not commented on the family's decision to seek counsel.

"Chrysler Group wishes to extend its deepest sympathies to family and friends of Kayla White for their tragic loss in this horrific crash which reports indicate may have been caused by a distracted driver," the company said in a statement. "As this matter is the subject of a law enforcement investigation it would be inappropriate to comment further."

Chrysler, following a letter from NHTSA, told federal regulators late Friday the company is not satisfied with the repair rates for recall of the nearly 1.6 million SUVs and will step up efforts to convince owners to get them fixed.

The automaker's letter came a day after David Friedman, the deputy chief of the NHTSA, said he sent an urgent letter to Chrysler CEO Sergio Marchionne, demanding the company improve its efforts to fix the Jeep SUVs.

NHTSA also issued a consumer advisory urging owners of the recalled Jeeps to get them fixed immediately.

According to a search of the VIN number of White's vehicle through NHTSA, White's Jeep had not been fitted with a trailer hitch as a result of the recall. It is unclear if the vehicle already had a factory-installed hitch before the recall.


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