NHTSA may reopen Jeep SUV fire probe

David Shepardson
Detroit News Washington Bureau

New York — The head of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration says the agency is considering reopening an investigation into 2.7 million older Jeep SUVs linked to dozens of gas tank fires in rear-end collisions — and said Fiat Chrysler Automobiles NV needs to do more to fix recalled vehicles.

“We’re not satisfied with the current situation so we are looking for every avenue that would be appropriate for us to take action,” said NHTSA Administrator Mark Rosekind in a meeting with reporters at the New York International Auto Show. “Given all of the stuff that’s going on, we want to figure out what else we can be doing.”

Asked if the government could reopen the investigation into the 2.7 million older SUVs that were investigated for fire risks, Rosekind said: “Everything is on the table. ... I have organized a group who is actually looking at any other actions that are available for us given the situation.”

Rosekind confirmed he is considering reopening the investigation launched in 2010 that was officially closed last year. “We’re going to be looking for every tool available for us to figure out if there something else we could be doing.”

Last Thursday, a Georgia jury awarded the family of a 4-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 verdict came months

The trial opened last month in Bainbridge, Georgia, in Decatur County Superior Court in the 2012 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.

The jury found Fiat Chrysler acted with “reckless or wanton disregard for human life in the design or sale” of the SUV.

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.

Fiat Chrysler said that nothing has changed since NHTSA closed its investigation.

“Real-world data show the 1999 Jeep Grand Cherokee has a lower incident rate than 57 other vehicles from its era. NHTSA concluded from its investigation that the vehicles do not pose an unreasonable risk to safety. No events that have occurred since NHTSA closed its investigation should affect this conclusion,” the company said.

The company’s dealers have nearly 59,000 hitch assemblies on dealer shelves, waiting for customers. “There are more than 720,000 hitch assemblies in our network. Every customer who qualifies for service can obtain service. They need only contact their dealers,” the company said. “Further, we have reached out to these customers on more than 5.4 million occasions — roughly three times each — using mail, e-mail and phone calls. To date, we have processed nearly 388,000 vehicles.”

Under government pressure after the crash, Fiat Chrysler recalled an estimated 1.56 million 2002-07 Jeep Liberty and 1993-98 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.

It is perfectly legal for automakers to challenge NHTSA recall requests — though unusual.

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

NHTSA has repeatedly 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. Rosekind said Thursday the repairs are “not happening fast enough for us.” After Fiat Chrysler reports quarterly recall completion numbers for the period ending March 31, NHTSA could push the company to do more.

NHTSA could try to require Fiat Chrysler to formally declare the vehicles defective or convert the vehicles in the customer service campaign to a formal recall. “All of that is being considered,” Rosekind said.

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.

Asked if he thought the vehicles were safe to drive, Rosekind said the main thing is to get the vehicles repaired.

In 2013, 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.

Last week’s 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 might 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 last week.

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

“Chrysler consciously chose to put American families at risk, and gambled that juries would not figure it out,” said Jeb Butler of Butler Tobin LLP, one of the lawyers representing the family.

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

In a 171-page January 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.

The recall deal came after a private meeting with Marchionne, NHTSA and then Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood at O’Hare Airport in June 2013.

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 4-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.

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.

DShepardson@detroitnews.com