Family wins $150 million after Jeep fire kills toddler

David Shepardson
Detroit News Washington Bureau

A Georgia jury late Thursday awarded the family of a four-year-old killed in a Jeep SUV fire $150 million — and found Fiat Chrysler Automobiles NV was responsible for nearly all of the damages.

The trial opened last month in Bainbridge, Georgia, in Decatur County Superior Court in the death of Remington Walden, 4, 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.

At the time of the crash, federal safety regulators were investigating fires in Jeep SUVs, including the model involved in the fatal crash. Regulators had requested a recall, but Chrysler resisted until a more-limited recall was issued for similar models before 1999.

Under government pressure after the crash, Fiat Chrysler recalled an estimated 1.56 million 2002-07 Jeep Liberty and 1993-1998 Jeep Grand Cherokee SUVs for the problem in June 2013, and agreed to install trailer hitches to protect the gas tanks. The company also sent letters to 2.27 million owners, though it isn't clear how many are still on the road.

Fiat Chrysler agreed to conduct a customer service campaign for another 1.2 million 1999-2004 Grand Cherokees including the one involved in the crash

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration 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.

The verdict included $30 million for pain and suffering, $120 million for Walden's life. It also assigned 1 percent of the fault to the driver of the vehicle that hit Walden's SUV and 99 percent to Fiat Chrysler.

The company said it was disappointed and considering an appeal.

"It is unfortunate that under Georgia Law the jury was prevented from taking into account extensive data submitted to NHTSA during a three-year investigation, which included more than 20 years of rear-impact accident data for tens of millions of vehicles. This and other information provided the basis for NHTSA's determination that the 1999 Jeep Grand Cherokee did not pose an unreasonable risk to motor vehicle safety," a Fiat Chrysler statement said.

The verdict could put pressure on Fiat Chrysler to do more to fix SUVs.

Fiat Chrysler CEO Sergio Marchionne defended the safety of millions of Jeep SUVs recalled for possible gas-tank fires.

In a 171-page January legal deposition, 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 three hours of questioning as part of a suit brought by the boy's family.

In closing arguments, Jim Butler the attorney representing the family, said Chrysler never accepted responsibility for the fire. Butler noted that the drivers had no injuries and that the four-year-old boy only had a broken leg from the crash, and that his death was caused by the fire from the damaged gas tank.

Butler added that Chrysler's attorneys had recommended a $1.7 million settlement that put the four-year-old's life at $57 a day. Butler asked the jury for $120 million.​

NHTSA has acknowledged the hitches won't 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 wouldn't address high-speed crashes, which is how most of the reported deaths occurred.

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 NHTSA formally asked Chrysler to recall 2.7 million 1992-98 Jeep Grand Cherokees and 2002-07 Jeep Liberties, 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 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.

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. Before the 1970s, fuel tanks in most cars were located behind the rear axle, the safety agency said. After the investigation 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.