Kayla White was killed last month in a fiery crash that occurred on a freeway in Detroit, Mich. It was reported that the SUV driven by Ms. White had been recalled because of a risk of catching fire during a rear-end collision. Ms. White was killed when her 2003 Jeep Liberty was struck from behind, causing it to overturn and catch fire. She died of injuries caused by flames that engulfed her car. An autopsy has determined the cause of death was burns and smoke inhalation.
Ms. White, 23, was pregnant and in her third trimester at the time of the crash. 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. The vehicles were at risk of catching fire when struck from behind. 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 – including at least five fatal crashes involving Libertys that resulted in seven deaths.
A search of the vehicle’s VIN number through NHTSA reveals that Ms. 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’s unclear if the vehicle, which had two previous owners, already had a factory-installed hitch before the recall. But the recall was issued while Ms. White owned the vehicle. The SUV, according to a Car-Fax vehicle history report, had been involved in a rear impact with another vehicle causing “minor to moderate damage” in 2005.
Chrysler says it has “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. Under government pressure, Chrysler said in July that it would be able to produce enough hitches to complete the June 2013 recall by mid-March 2015 – far faster than the original timetable of up to 4.7 years.
Clarence Ditlow, executive director of The Center for Auto Safety, a Washington, D.C., advocacy group, said that the design of the vehicles leaves the gas tanks vulnerable in the event of a rear-end collision. He says that “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.” Mr. Ditlow also said Chrysler’s fix of adding a hitch may not adequately protect the fuel tank. He added:
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. 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. Interestingly, at first Chrysler 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 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. A Cadillac struck Ms. White’s Jeep in the crash, forcing it into a 2014 Nissan Cube, which then struck a 2015 Lincoln MKZ as it slowed for traffic. The family of Ms. White has filed a lawsuit against the automaker. Gerald Thurswell, from the Thurswell Law Firm, located in Southfield, MI., represents Ms. White’s family in the lawsuit.
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