Fiat Chrysler investigating death of ‘Star Trek’ actor

Michael Wayland
The Detroit News

Fiat Chrysler Automobiles NV says it “is in contact with the authorities and is conducting a thorough investigation” into the death of “Star Trek” actor Anton Yelchin involving one of its recalled vehicles.

Actor Anton Yelchin, 27, had gotten out of his vehicle momentarily on Sunday, Los Angeles police say, when it started rolling and fatally pinned him against a fence.

Yelchin, 27, a rising star best known for playing Chekov in the rebooted series, died Sunday when his 2015 Jeep Grand Cherokee pinned him against a mailbox pillar and security fence at his home, Los Angeles police said.

The 2015 Grand Cherokees were part of a global recall of 1.1 million vehicles announced by the automaker in April. Others involved in the recall included 2012-14 Dodge Charger and Chrysler 300 sedans and 2014-15 Jeep Grand Cherokees.

“FCA US extends its most sincere condolences to the family and friends of Mr. Yelchin,” the automaker said in a statement on Monday. “The company is in contact with the authorities and is conducting a thorough investigation. It is premature to speculate on the cause of this tragedy.”

The 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.

Fiat Chrysler recalled 1.1 million vehicles globally over gear shifters that can lead drivers exiting vehicles to mistakenly think they are in park.

Fiat Chrysler expected to send recall notification letters to owners on May 16, according to a memo to dealers, but it’s not known whether Yelchin received or saw his letter. The company is working on a fix and expects to have a software update ready in July or August.

Investigators were looking into the position of Yelchin’s gear shift at the time of the accident, Officer Jane Kim said. The actor had gotten out of the vehicle momentarily, but police didn’t say why he was behind it when it started rolling.

Coroner’s officials ruled Yelchin’s death an accident after an autopsy. The results of any toxicology tests would not be known for months, coroner spokesman Ed Winter said.

The gear shifter callback is not a typical recall, as the company said the vehicles involved were inspected and no evidence of equipment failure was found.

The shifters in question return to the same position after each manipulation. “Gear-selection is conveyed to the driver by multiple sets of indicator lights, not gear-selector position, and unless due care is taken, drivers may draw erroneous conclusions about the status of their vehicles,” the automaker said earlier this year.

NHTSA’s testing found that the electronic gear shifter is “not intuitive” and offers “poor tactile and visual feedback to the driver, increasing the potential for unintended gear selection.”

If a driver opens the door when the gearshift isn’t in park, a chime rings and a message pops up to alert them that the transmission is not in park.

The engine also will not turn off normally without the transmission in park. However, this function does not protect drivers who intentionally leave the engine running or those who do not realize that the engine is still running after they tried to turn it off, NHTSA said.

Fiat Chrysler changed the shifter design for the Charger and 300 in model year 2015, and for the Grand Cherokee in model year 2016.

Yelchin began acting as a child, taking small roles in independent films and various television shows, such as “ER,” “The Practice” and “Curb Your Enthusiasm.” His breakout big-screen role came opposite Anthony Hopkins in 2001’s “Hearts in Atlantis.”

Yelchin, an only child, was born in Russia. His parents were professional figure skaters who moved the family to the United States when Yelchin was a baby. He briefly flirted with skating lessons, too, before discovering that he wasn’t very skilled on the ice. That led him to acting class.

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Associated Press contributed.