Georgia judge cuts Jeep fire verdict to $40 million

David Shepardson
Detroit News Washington Bureau

Washington — A Georgia judge reduced the value of a $150 million verdict against Fiat Chrysler to $40 million in the Jeep gas tank fire that killed a 4-year-old, but denied the automaker’s request for a new trial, calling the evidence “overwhelming.”

In May, Fiat Chrysler Automobiles NV asked a Georgia judge for a new trial after a jury in April awarded $150 million to the family of Remington Walden, who was burned to death when the 1999 Jeep Grand Cherokee in which he riding was hit from behind in March 2012. The SUV’s design had a plastic gas tank mounted behind the rear axle which ruptured and leaked gasoline, causing a fire.

Judge J. Kevin Chason of Decatur County Superior Court cut the verdict to $40 million: $30 million for wrongful death and $10 million for pain and suffering. Lawyers for the Walden family said they accepted the reduced verdict.

Michael Palese, a spokesman for Fiat Chrysler, said the automaker is reviewing its options. “The reduction in the damage awards does not cure the many errors that tainted this verdict and denied FCA US a fair trial. We are considering our legal options,” Palese said.

Chason said there was no merit to Fiat Chrysler’s argument that the “jury acted from passion or prejudice.”

The jury ruled that Fiat Chrysler was 99 percent responsible for Walden’s death, and that it acted with reckless disregard for human life in selling the Jeep to the family.

“FCA has tried to mislead everyone — the court, the jury, NHTSA, and the public,” said Jeb Butler, a lawyer for the family. “FCA should look in the mirror — its problem is the simple fact its product is indefensible, but at trial FCA tried to defend that product by making things up.”

The April 2 verdict came nearly two years after Fiat Chrysler compromised with U.S. safety regulators and agreed to a scaled-down recall of 1.56 million older-model Jeeps with the rear-mounted tanks. The recall fix involves installing a trailer hitch assembly to give the tank some protection.

On Sunday, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration said Fiat Chrysler as part of a settlement will offer $100 gift cars to owners of unrepaired recalled Jeeps. It will offer them $1,000 incentives to trade them in.

NHTSA has repeatedly criticized Fiat Chrysler for not doing more to get recalled Jeeps repaired faster.

Lawyers for Walden noted that Fiat and chairman and CEO Sergio Marchionne have repeatedly said Jeeps with rear gas tanks were “absolutely safe.” The lawyers said the company has settled dozens of fire lawsuits; they argued that until the most recent case, the automaker had never gone to trial to defend the vehicles. In the Walden case, the parents refused settlement offers before trial, lawyer Jim Butler said.

Fiat Chrysler had said the jury’s award of $120 million for the life of Walden and $30 million for his pain and suffering were “grossly excessive” and illegal under Georgia law. The company also contends the amounts are far higher than the largest awards in Georgia history that have been upheld on appeal.

In its motion, Fiat Chrysler said the $120 million wrongful death award is more than 11 times the largest such award upheld on appeal in the state. The $30 million pain-and-suffering award is more than four times larger than the largest upheld in Georgia.

Fiat Chrysler argues that the boy’s suffering was brief, and that previously, the largest pain-and-suffering award in Georgia was $7 million for a person who was hospitalized for months, paralyzed and endured severe pain. “A $30 million pain-and-suffering award for what plaintiffs acknowledge was at most one minute of suffering is irrational,” the motion said.

Federal documents show that at least 75 people have died in post-crash fires due to the tanks. Chrysler has long contended that the Jeeps were no more dangerous than comparable SUVs built at the time.

DShepardson@detroitnews.com