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Anton Yelchin’s parents sue FCA over actor’s death

Michael Wayland
The Detroit News

The parents of “Star Trek” actor Anton Yelchin filed a wrongful death and product liability lawsuit Tuesday in Los Angeles state court against the North American operations for Fiat Chrysler Automobiles NV and ZF Friedrichshafen AG.

Yelchin, 27, a rising star best known for playing Chekov in the rebooted series, died June 19 after his 2015 Jeep Grand Cherokee pinned him against a mailbox pillar and security fence at his home.

FCA US built the vehicle, while ZF North America produced the automatic transmission and the “monostable” shifter used on the SUV.

The vehicle was part of a global recall of 1.1 million vehicles in April after federal regulators found that new electric transmission shifters in some Jeep, Chrysler and Dodge models were confusing drivers and causing accidents.

FCA US in a statement on Tuesday extended its “sympathies to the Yelchin family for their tragic loss,” but declined to comment on the lawsuit.

“The company has not been served with a lawsuit and cannot comment further at this time,” the statement said.

A ZF North America spokesman said the company doesn’t comment on litigation topics.

The lawsuit alleges that FCA US and ZF North America designed and manufactured the “defective” gear shifters.

The Los Angeles County Department of Public Health ruled the actor’s death an accident by blunt traumatic asphyxia.

The Fiat Chrysler vehicles were recalled following an investigation by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration that identified more than 306 incidents of Grand Cherokees rolling away after the drivers intended to shift the vehicle into park. Of those incidents, there were 117 alleged crashes, 28 of which reportedly involved injuries — including three fractured pelvises.

However it’s a unique situation because the shifters in the recalled vehicles operate how they were designed to — returning to the same position after each shift whether it’s in “park,” “neutral” or “drive.”

“There’s no ‘defect,’ but you could argue that gearshift lever is defective in design if people can’t understand it,” Jack R. Nerad, Kelley Blue Book executive market analyst, previously told The Detroit News. “It’s probably a new area for NHTSA, where there are new ways and new technologies that are not necessarily easy to understand and mistakes could be made even though the system is operating as designed.”

Also named in the lawsuit were companies supposedly involved in selling Yelchin the vehicle, including AutoNation Chrysler Dodge Jeep and CA Superstores Valencia CJD, where Yelchin purchased the vehicle. However AutoNation said the company “had nothing to do with” the “unfortunate” incident because the company didn’t own that dealership when Yelchin purchased the vehicle.

The lawsuit seeks a jury trial. It doesn’t specify how much money is being sought by Yelchin’s parents — Victor Yelchin and Irina Yelchina— but the complaint does seek damages, including attorney fees, all funeral/mortuary costs and several other requests, including “further relief as the court deems just and proper.”

A class-action lawsuit was filed following Yelchin’s death in U.S. District Court in California on behalf of four car owners against Fiat Chrysler “for fraudulently concealing and failing to remedy a shifter design defect affecting 811,000 vehicles and linked to driverless rollaway incidents that have resulted in injuries and accidents, including the death of actor Anton Yelchin.”

The lawsuit seeks recovery for owners’ losses including diminished vehicle value, as well as “recoveries for other damages and an injunctive order to end Fiat Chrysler’s allegedly deceptive practices.”

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Twitter: @MikeWayland