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Southfield โ€” The SUV driven by Kayla White when she was killed Tuesday in a fiery crash on the Lodge Freeway had been recalled because of risk of catching fire during a rear-end collision.

White was killed when her 2003 Jeep Liberty was struck from behind near Telegraph, 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, 23, of Ferndale was pregnant and in her third trimester at the time of the crash, according to police.

The SUV was part of a Chrysler Group LLC recall campaign last year of 1.56 million 2002-07 Jeep Libertys and 1993-2004 Jeep Grand Cherokees at risk of catching fire when struck from behind. The automaker issued the callback 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 โ€” including at least five fatal crashes involving Libertys that resulted in seven deaths.

Southfield attorney Gerald Thurswell, who is representing White's family, said Friday the family is aware of the recall. He declined to answer questions about the police crash investigation and vehicle fire, but said the family is pursuing a lawsuit against the automaker.

"We're investigating a products liability case against Chrysler," he said.

Chrysler declined to comment on the White family's decision to seek counsel.

According to a search of the vehicle's VIN number through NHTSA, White's Jeep had not been fitted with a trailer hitch as a result of the recall to better protect the gas tank during collisions. It is unclear if the vehicle already had a factory-installed hitch before the recall.

The Jeep had two previous owners, according to a CarFax vehicle history report. The recall was issued while White owned the vehicle. The SUV, according to the report, was involved in a rear impact with another vehicle causing "minor to moderate damage" in 2005.

White's family members reached Friday declined to comment about Tuesday's crash, referring The Detroit News to Thurswell.

Chrysler spokesman Eric Mayne, in a statement about the accident, said the company is "working with law-enforcement officials to gather the relevant facts."

The crash investigation may take four to six weeks before results are submitted to the Oakland County Prosecutor's Office to determine whether charges will be filed against the 69-year-old driver who rear-ended White's vehicle, said Michigan State Police Lt. Mike Shaw. State police declined to provide further information Friday afternoon.

It was not clear if the fire began with the fuel tank or how fast the other vehicle was traveling when it struck White's car.

Police called to the crash scene around 4:45 p.m. determined the driver of a 2002 Cadillac, a Beverly Hills man, traveling north on the Lodge was unable to stop as traffic slowed in the right lane. Police said the driver was not paying attention.

NHTSA Deputy Administrator David Friedman, in a statement late Friday to The News, said the organization continues "to urge Chrysler to accelerate efforts to bring owners in to get their vehicles repaired and to ensure that parts are in stock when they do."

"It is also heartbreaking to see another victim of a distracted driver," he said. "We urge all drivers to keep their eyes on the road and their hands on the wheel."

Chrysler said Friday it had fixed or inspected nearly 130,000 vehicles since August. The company said it had more than 427,000 hitches in stock as of this week. It expects to have more than 550,000 by Dec. 1.

In July, under government pressure, Chrysler said it would be able to produce enough hitches to complete the June 2013 recall by mid-March 2015 โ€” far faster than the original timetable of up to 4.7 years.

Clarence Ditlow, executive director of Washington, D.C., advocacy group the Center for Auto Safety, said that the design of the vehicles leaves the gas tanks vulnerable in the event of a rear-end collision.

"If you're in the wrong place at the wrong time, the vehicles are going to explode and you're very likely to burn to death," he said Friday.

Ditlow also said Chrysler's fix of adding a hitch may not adequately protect the fuel tank.

"Looking at the one photo I saw of (White's) Liberty, it appears that the striking vehicle went under the bumper and hit the fuel tank," he said. "All bets are off if you go under the bumper and the trailer hitch."

NHTSA opened an investigation into the Jeeps in August 2010 at the request of the Center for Auto Safety. The organization said the vehicles' gas tanks were positioned below the rear bumper and behind the rear axle, making them susceptible to rupturing and spilling gasoline in a rear-end crash.

Chrysler, at first, opposed the recall. The company last year issued a statement and three-page white paper report supporting its decision not to voluntarily recall the vehicles, saying the company did "not agree with NHTSA's conclusions and does not intend to recall the vehicles cited in the investigation."

The company's analysis showed the incidents "occur less than one time for every million years of vehicle operation. Additionally, these vehicles met or exceeded all applicable federal motor vehicle safety standards in place at the time they were built."

Chrysler on Friday maintained the SUVs are safe: "These vehicles are not defective and are among the safest in the peer group," it said in a statement. "Of the 26 most severe accidents cited in the NHTSA investigation and for which there is sufficient data to calculate kinetic energy, all exceeded the threshold for compliance with today's more-stringent crashworthiness regulations."

The cited regulations cover the level of integrity fuel tanks must maintain in a crash.

The automaker did move gas tanks on the Grand Cherokee in front of the rear axle in 2005, and did the same thing with the Liberty in 2007. Both moves were in connection to the vehicles being redesigned with new platforms, which automakers plan years in advance.

In Tuesday's crash, the Cadillac struck White's Jeep, forcing it into a 2014 Nissan Cube, which then struck a 2015 Lincoln MKZ as it slowed for traffic.

Police said alcohol does not appear to be a factor. No other injuries were reported.

White graduated from Ferndale High School in 2009 and was a hostess at Andiamo in Bloomfield Hills.

Her Facebook page was flooded after the crash with messages expressing shock and asking for prayers for White and her unborn baby, who White called Braedin in posts.

Visitation for Kayla White will be 2-7 p.m. Sunday, followed by a 7 p.m. service at Hopcroft Funeral Home at 31145 John R in Madison Heights.

hfournier@detroitnews.com

(313) 222-4616

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