Fiat Chrysler CEO defends Jeep safety

David Shepardson
Detroit News Washington Bureau

Washington — Fiat Chrysler Automobiles NV CEO Sergio Marchionne defended the safety of millions of Jeep SUVs recalled for possible gas tank fires, as a Georgia jury hears the case of a 4-year-old boy killed in a Jeep fire.

In a 171-page January deposition obtained by The Detroit News, Marchionne said the automaker firmly believes the older Jeep SUVs with gas tanks located behind the rear axle are no more susceptible to fires than other SUVs.

"Our analysis of that data suggested these were defect-free vehicles, and that they performed exactly as the rest of the comparative class performed in the marketplace at the time. Our analysis suggests very clearly that this is not a defect," Marchionne said in a three-hour session in downtown Atlanta on Jan. 9, as part of a suit brought by the family of Remington Walden, 4.

Under government pressure, Fiat Chrysler recalled an estimated 1.56 million 2002-07 Jeep Liberty and 1993-2004 Jeep Grand Cherokee SUVs for the problem in June 2013, and agreed to install trailer hitches to protect the gas tanks. In an abundance of caution, it sent letters to 2.27 million owners, though it is not clear how many are still on the road.

Fiat Chrysler notes the vehicles met safety requirements at the time they were built, and insists they are not defective. The company also agreed to conduct a customer service campaign for another 1.2 million 1999-2004 Grand Cherokees.

The recall came after the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration formally asked Chrysler to recall 2.7 million 1992-98 Jeep Grand Cherokees and 2002-07 Jeep Libertys, saying they were suspectible to gasoline fires resulting from ruptured gas tanks after severe rear-end crashes. The government initially blamed such collisions for the deaths of at least 51 people driving Jeep SUVs; they are now they are linked to at least 70 deaths.

The Detroit News first reported private talks between Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, Marchionne and then-NHTSA Administrator David Strickland in 2013. The meeting in Chicago led to the trailer hitch remedy. Emails between Chrysler and NHTSA officials obtained by The Detroit News show the meeting was sought by Marchionne, who had offered to fly to various locations.

"The meeting would only be with the secretary and no other staff, as Sergio wanted," Strickland said in an email to Chrysler's senior vice president for external affairs.

In the deposition, Marchionne said he didn't care who NHTSA brought to the meeting, "If they wanted to bring an army of people, they were welcome, but I was going to show up on my own," he said. "I would never tell NHTSA who to bring to a meeting and who not to bring to a meeting." He said he asked for the meeting to try to find a resolution.

Marchionne defended the "incredibly thorough review of the underlying data" and said the company had shared that data with NHTSA, saying it is "fundamentally not different than it would have been for any other competitor car in that class."

He denied Chrysler wanted to settle the investigation because he was worried about the impact on sales. He acknowledged that there have been deadly fires in Jeep SUVs. "I think that there are unfortunate events surrounding the use of cars, and I find these deplorable," Marchionne said. "I think it's unfortunate, and people will suffer injury as a result of driving or riding in vehicles. But I don't think there is the slightest evidence that Grand Cherokee or the class that we're talking about here are defective."

The trial is opening this week in Bainbridge, Georgia, in Decatur County Superior Court in the death of Remington, who died after the 1999 Jeep Grand Cherokee driven by his aunt Emily Newsome was hit in the rear by a 1997 Dodge Dakota. Newsome, who was driving the boy to tennis lessons, was waiting to turn left, when the driver of the Dakota struck the SUV at high speed, causing the fuel tank to burst.

Marchionne's videotaped deposition is expected to be played in court.

Lawyers for Fiat Chrysler said in a court filing that the parents "allowed their child to ride in the vehicle after news and media coverage about the NHTSA investigation into the subject vehicle." They argue that no warning "would have prevented Remi's injuries in this incident."

NHTSA has criticized Chrysler for the slow pace of fixes; the company didn't start fixing them until August 2014, more than a year after they agreed to the recall.

However, NHTSA has acknowledged the hitches will not offer much protection in high-speed crashes. Its investigation did find they 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 reported deaths have occurred.

NHTSA issued a consumer advisory in November that urged owners of the recalled Jeeps to get them fixed immediately. The letter came days after a 23-year-old pregnant woman from Ferndale was killed in a fiery crash on the Lodge Freeway in a recalled 2003 Jeep Liberty. Kayla White was killed when her Jeep was struck from behind at high speed, causing it to overturn and catch fire. She died of burns and smoke inhalation, an autopsy found.

NHTSA noted that the Jeeps were among the few vehicles on the roads with gas tanks in the rear of the vehicles. Prior to the 1970s, fuel tanks in most cars were located behind the rear axle, the safety agency said. After the investigaton into gas tank fires in Ford Pintos, most fuel tanks were moved in front of the axle. NHTSA said by 2002, only the Jeeps, the Ford Mustang, Ford Crown Victoria and Mercury Grand Marquis still had gas tanks behind the rear axle.

Chrysler said that as of January, the company's dealers had 58,600 repair kits on their shelves, and more than 313,000 kits in regional warehouses. To date, about 10 percent of the vehicles have had the recalls completed.