A Georgia jury on Thursday awarded $150 million to the family of a boy who burned to death in a 1999 Jeep Grand Cherokee after a rear-end collision, finding Fiat Chrysler LLC’s rear-positioned fuel tank in the Jeep posed a fire risk and killed the child.
The Decatur County, Georgia, jury reached the verdict just hours after closing arguments concluded the eight-day trial, granting the family’s request for $120 million for the full value of 4-year-old Remington Walden’s life. Jurors found that Fiat Chrysler knew of the potential danger and the jury said Chrysler, the maker of Jeeps, must pay.
The jury ruled that Chrysler acted with reckless disregard for human life in selling the family of Remington “Remi” Walden a 1999 Jeep with a gas tank mounted behind the rear axle.
Walden, of Bainbridge, Georgia, was killed when the Jeep driven by his aunt was hit from behind by a pickup truck in March 2012. The fuel tank leaked, engulfing the Jeep in flames and killing the boy.
The verdict comes nearly two years after Chrysler compromised with a federal safety agency and agreed to a scaled-down recall of some older-model Jeeps with the rear-mounted tanks. The tanks have little structure to protect them if struck from behind, making them susceptible to punctures and fires.
Federal documents show that at least 75 people have died in post-crash fires because of the rear-mounted fuel tanks.
The 11-woman, one-man jury ruled after a nine-day trial that Chrysler was 99% at fault for the crash and the pickup driver was 1% at fault. Jurors also determined that Chrysler failed to warn the family of the hazards of driving the Jeep. They ruled that the Waldens should get $30 million for Remi’s pain and suffering and $120 million for the full value of his life, according to a verdict form.
Mike Palese, spokesman for Chrysler parent company FCA US, said the company is disappointed with the verdict and would appeal. Chrysler, he said, was prevented from presenting data submitted to federal safety regulators showing that the vehicles did not pose an unreasonable safety risk.
“The vehicles are not defective,” Palese said.
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During the trial Fiat Chrysler Chief executive officer Sergio Marchionne has defended the safety of Jeep products. He also 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 over a fuel tank fire that killed the boy.
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.
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“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 video-taped deposition.
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.
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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.