Family of woman killed in Jeep fire expected to sue

Michael Wayland and David Shepardson
The Detroit News

An attorney for the family of Kayla White, a pregnant Ferndale woman killed in a fiery crash on the Lodge Freeway in November, intends to use a Georgia case for litigation against Fiat Chrysler Automobiles later this year.

Southfield attorney Gerald Thurswell, representing the 23-year-old’s family, said a lawsuit against Chrysler Group, now known as FCA US LLC, was on hold until after the Georgia case was decided. That case involved a 1999 Jeep Grand Cherokee that was hit from behind, killing a toddler, in March 2012.

“It’s going to be very similar to the case in Georgia,” Thurswell said Tuesday. “We’re taking the same position that they took in Georgia.”

A Georgia jury in April awarded the family of 4-year-old Remington Walden $150 million and found the automaker responsible for nearly all damages. The company is seeking a new trial.

Thurswell said a lawsuit against the automaker on behalf of White’s family will be filed by Nov. 11, the first anniversary of White’s accident. “There’s no rush,” he said. “Our experts are putting the whole case together.”

The attorney’s comments came on the eve of sentencing of Clarence Quentin Heath Jr., the Beverly Hills man who initially caused the fatal accident involving White. Heath pleaded guilty earlier this year to misdemeanor moving violation causing death, according to a court employee. He faces up to one year in jail and a $2,000 fine. White’s family is expected to give a statement at Wednesday’s sentencing.

Thurswell said Heath should be sentenced for causing an accident, not for causing White’s death. He said Heath “caused the accident, but he did not cause her death.”

“If the vehicle had not caught on fire ... she would have already delivered her baby, and she and the baby would be fine,” he said.

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 Jeep was part of a Chrysler recall campaign from 2013 of 1.56 million 2002-07 Jeep Libertys and 1993-98 Jeep Grand Cherokees at risk of catching fire when struck from behind. The Grand Cherokee in which Walden was a passenger was part of a customer service campaign for another 1.2 million 1999-2004 Grand Cherokees.

The automaker issued the recall 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.

Fiat Chrysler is seeking a new trial in Georgia, citing the jury’s award of $120 million for the life of Walden and $30 million for his pain and suffering are “grossly excessive” and illegal under Georgia law. It also contends the amounts are far higher than the largest awards in Georgia history that have been upheld on appeal.

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.

Company officials have said since 2013 that the fix would not address high-speed crashes in which deaths have occurred.

They contend the “vehicles met or exceeded all applicable federal motor vehicle safety standards in place at the time they were built.”

In a January deposition, Fiat Chrysler CEO Sergio Marchionne said the automaker firmly believes older Jeeps are no more susceptible to fires than other SUVs.

The company 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 or a potential lawsuit.

“FCA US LLC extends its deepest sympathies to the family and friends of Kayla White for their tragic loss in an horrific crash caused by a distracted driver, who slammed into the rear of her vehicle at a high rate of speed, and not by any defect in her 2003 Jeep Liberty,” the company said in a statement Tuesday.

NHTSA is considering reopening an investigation into the 2.7 million older Jeeps linked to dozens of gas tank fires in rear-end collisions. A decision is expected next week, officials said.