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The death of a four-year-old child in 2012 was caused by a vehicle defectively designed with a rear fuel tank, a jury in Georgia recently decided. For this, the manufacturer was ordered to pay $150 million in damages to the boy’s family.
At the conclusion of a two-week trial, jurors determined Chrysler Group LLC was liable for the child’s death and had failed in its duty to warn customers of the fire danger they faced in a rear-end collision as a result of the Jeep Grand Cherokee’s fuel tank being located at the back.
The company has recalled some 1.6 million Jeep vehicles specifically for the rear tank issue. However, the model involved in this case – the 1999 version – was not on that list. Jurors, finding the auto company had acted with reckless and wanton disregard for the well-being of consumers, apportioned 99 percent of damages to the firm. The remaining 1 percent is the responsibility of the driver who rear-ended the vehicle.
The impact of the crash resulted in the fuel tank rupturing. The child died as a result of severe burns. The plaintiffs in this product liability lawsuit alleged a fuel tank placed toward the front of the vehicle would have given the boy a better chance of survival.
The verdict comes one year after the auto industry recalled a record number of vehicles. In 2014, more than 60 million vehicles were recalled for various defects. That figure blew away the previous record set in 2004 by more than double.
Part of the reason for that spike is that auto manufacturers began finally coming forward with recalls that should have been issued years ago.
This in part can be attributed to a crackdown by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), which is now being headed by a new administrator. The agency had faced an avalanche of criticism in the last several years for weak responses to numerous public safety crises involving defective vehicles.
In another recent display of force by the administration, a consent agreement was finally reached with Japanese airbag maker Takata to expand the recall of its products to 34 million airbags in U.S. cars and trucks. This was after months of back-and-forth with the manufacturer. The agency said it plans to take over the recall process – something that’s never been done before, despite the department having that authority for the last 15 years.
Although a number of auto manufacturers are working on their own to restructure the way they monitor and report safety defects, regulators are working to do a better job of ensuring they toe the line.
The NHTSA also announced it will be holding a public hearing to force Chrysler to explain why its completion rate for the repair of some 10 million cars and trucks spanning 20 different recalls has been so poor.
Still, there are limits to what the agency can do. It has little more than 600 employees and yet is responsible to oversee national road safety, plus the auto industry, which has nearly one million workers. Officials have requested to triple the agency’s budget to $908 million, but that’s still pending Congressional review.
In the meantime, individual product liability lawsuits stemming from these widespread vehicle defects continue to be litigated.
In the recent Georgia case involving the rear fuel tank, jurors awarded $120 million for loss of life and $30 million for pain and suffering. Although the defendant manufacturer had settled other similar cases out of court, it refused to do so with this one.
The manufacturer said it is contemplating an appeal, insisting its gas tanks weren’t defective and did meet federal safety standards that were in place at the time.
The Ferraro Law Firm handles claims resulting from defective products or dangerous pharmaceuticals. Call (888) 554-2030 for a free and confidential consultation. Offices in Miami and Washington, D.C.
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