A Georgia jury recently awarded $150 million to the family of a boy who burned to death in a 1999 Jeep Grand Cherokee after a rear-end collision. The jury found that Fiat Chrysler LLC’s defective rear-positioned fuel tank in the Jeep posed a fire risk and killed the child. The verdict granted the family’s request for $120 million for the full value of 4-year-old Remington Walden’s life. Jurors found that Fiat Chrysler showed a “reckless or wanton disregard for human life” in the design or sale of the 1999 Jeep Grand Cherokee and failed to warn consumers about the risk. Chrysler internal memos showed that the company knew rear-positioned fuel tanks were dangerous since the 1970.
The jury also awarded the family an additional $30 million for the boy’s pain and suffering. Experts had testified he lived for up to a full minute after the flames reached him. Fiat Chrysler bears 99 percent of the responsibility for the death, jurors found, with the remaining percent falling upon the driver of the car that rear-ended the Jeep. The trial saw a deposition from Fiat Chrysler CEO Sergio Marchionne, along with testimony from witnesses, experts and doctors concerning the safety of the Jeeps, the physics of the crash, and the pain that the child felt during his last moments of life.
Jurors were left to consider whether a design defect killed Remington, whether Fiat Chrysler showed a reckless or wanton disregard for human life in designing the vehicles and failing to fix them, and whether Bryan Harrell, the driver who struck the Jeep, was negligent and responsible in the boy’s death. The suit was brought by the family of the boy, nicknamed “Remi,” alleging that Chrysler’s negligent fuel tank design in a 1999 Jeep Grand Cherokee caused a fire that killed the boy after a collision that otherwise resulted in minor to moderate injuries.
The little boy was strapped into his booster seat in the backseat of his aunt’s 1999 Jeep Grand Cherokee on his way to tennis lessons on March 6, 2012. His aunt was stopped at a turn signal, waiting to turn left, when she was rear-ended by Bryan Harrell, who was also named in the suit. Since at least the 1960s, Chrysler had actual knowledge that placing a fuel tank in a vehicle’s crush zone between the rear bumper and axle makes it vulnerable to catching on fire after a rear-end collision. Chrysler failed to warn the public about the known defect. It was technologically feasible, economically practicable and fundamentally safer to redesign the fuel tank placement. But Chrysler chose not to do so.
In June 2013, NHTSA asked Chrysler to recall 2.7 million Jeep Grand Cherokee and Jeep Liberty vehicles. That was because the vehicles’ fuel tanks were more likely than other comparable vehicles to catch fire in a rear-end collision. In a rare rebuke, Chrysler initially refused to conduct any recall. But subsequently the manufacturer said that it would recall a subset of the vehicles to install trailer hitches that would improve their performance in low- to moderate-speed collisions. In January 2014, NHTSA announced that it had accepted Chrysler Group LLC’s recall of 1.56 million Jeep vehicles over concerns that rear-end collisions could cause them to catch fire.
Fiat Chrysler’s CEO, Marchionne, was ordered by the court to give a deposition to be used in the case. The deposition was taken in January and played for jurors in the case. Sergio Marchionne’s 2013 meeting with then-U.S. Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood and then-National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) chief David Strickland was discussed at trial. The court’s order occurred after NHTSA asked Chrysler to recall the 2.7 million Jeep Grand Cherokee and Jeep Liberty vehicles. It was suggested at trial by the family’s lawyers that the meeting was an attempt to pressure the officials not to find that the Jeeps posed a safety defect. This characterization was rejected by Marchionne, who also said in his deposition that the rear-positioned fuel tanks are safe and not defective.
The Plaintiffs in this case are represented by Jim Butler of Butler Wooten Cheeley & Peak, Jeb Butler of Butler Tobin, and George Floyd of Floyd & Kendrick. They did a tremendous job for their clients.
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