Sergio Marchionne is defending the safety of Jeep products in a high-profile Georgia lawsuit, involving the death by fire of a 4-year-old boy.
The top executive at Fiat Chrysler Automobiles denied trying to stop top federal regulators from finding a safety defect in older Jeeps with rear-positioned fuel tanks. Instead, he argued that the vehicles are safe, in a recorded deposition that was played for Georgia jurors in a wrongful death trial about a fuel tank fire that killed the boy.
Marchionne and the plaintiff’s attorney clashed over a 2013 meeting with then-U.S. Secretary Ray LaHood in Chicago in June.
The automaker firmly believes the older Jeep SUVs with gas tanks located behind the rear axle are no more susceptible to fires than other SUVs, Marchionne said.
“Our analysis of that data suggested these were defect-free vehicles, and that they performed exactly as the rest of the comparative class performed in the marketplace at the time. Our analysis suggests very clearly that this is not a defect,” Marchionne said in a three-hour session in downtown Atlanta on Jan. 9, as part of a suit brought by the family of Remington Walden, 4.
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Under government pressure, Fiat Chrysler recalled an estimated 1.56 million 2002-07 Jeep Liberty and 1993-2004 Jeep Grand Cherokee SUVs for the problem in June 2013, and agreed to install trailer hitches to protect the gas tanks. In an abundance of caution, it sent letters to 2.27 million owners, though it is not clear how many are still on the road.
Fiat Chrysler notes the vehicles met safety requirements at the time they were built, and insists they are not defective. The company also agreed to conduct a customer service campaign for another 1.2 million 1999-2004 Grand Cherokees.
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The company had tried to exclude Marchionne from testifying but Decatur County, Ga., Superior Court Judge J. Kevin Chason ordered him to be available for a videotaped deposition, the Wall Street Journal reported.
According to the lawsuit, Walden was sitting in the back seat of his family’s 1999 Jeep Grand Cherokee – strapped into a safety seat – when the SUV was rear-ended, causing the gas tank to rupture and spill gasoline. The ensuing fire engulfed the rear of the car.
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The Center for Auto Safety has counted 58 fatalities in similar accidents and has repeatedly called for a recall of all affected models.