The 1999 Jeep Grand Cheroke in which Remington Walden burned to death after its fuel tank exploded in a rear-end collision. Click here to see video from the trial.Bainbridge — Attorneys for two parents who were awarded $150 million after a toddler died in a fire caused by an exploding Jeep fuel tank ripped into Fiat Chrysler Automobiles' efforts on Monday to have the verdict thrown out for being excessive and unconstitutional, arguing the jury’s decision was the result of the company trying to defend an “indefensible product.”
In a response to a motion for a new trial filed in May by Chrysler, James Butler of Butler Wooten Cheeley & Peak LLP and Jeb Butler of Butler Tobin LLC told a Georgia state court judge that while they are open to a “reasonable” reduction of the verdict, the court should reject Chrysler’s request for a new trial on the grounds that the massive sum was equivalent to punitive damages that the jury was not permitted to award.
Chrysler had argued that earlier this year during the first trial over allegations that the company withheld information from consumers about the fire risk posed by rear-mounted fuel tanks in older Jeeps, attorneys for the parents of 4-year-old Remington Walden improperly asked jurors to punish the company instead of just compensating the Waldens. Chrysler claimed the theme that the jury should act as a regulator “permeated” plaintiffs’ entire case.
However the Waldens’ attorneys said the jury had been explicitly told by Judge Kevin Chason to only provide appropriate compensation for Remington’s death and not to punish the company, and that Georgia law assumes juries follow instructions from the court on how they should deliberate. They also argued that Georgia courts have recognized the state’s wrongful death statute is itself punitive to a certain extent.
“Binding law establishes the wrongful death statute is punitive in nature, so even if the effect of the verdict was to punish FCA, that is not grounds for a new trial,” the plaintiffs’ response states. (Click here to read a copy of the plaintiffs' response.)
While Chrysler argued that the jury’s verdict was a result of inflammatory statements like saying Chrysler executives belonged in prison, the Waldens’ attorneys said the record-setting $150 million dollars was reached after the jurors considered the extreme pain and suffering Remington experienced as he burned alive while still conscious and strapped into his car seat. They also said evidence regarding Chrysler’s knowledge of the extent of the dangers posed by rear-mounted fuel tanks was responsible for the verdict, and not any misconduct by the Waldens' attorneys.
“If FCA really seeks an explanation for the jury’s conclusions, it should look underneath one of its Jeeps,” the response states.
The Decatur County jury decided in April that Chrysler acted with a “reckless or wanton disregard for human life” and failed to adequately warn of the potential hazards associated with the 1999 Jeep Grand Cherokee’s rear-mounted fuel tank. It awarded $120 million for the death of four-year-old Remington and $30 million for his pain and suffering in the fire that killed him, according to a Courtroom View Network webcast of the proceedings.
The automaker announced a recall of roughly 1.5 million Jeeps in 2013 following pressure from federal regulators, due to the fire risk from leaking fuel tanks in the event of a rear-end collision. The 1999 Jeep Grand Cherokee was not recalled, although the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration announced in April following the verdict that it might reopen an investigation of the vehicles, and the agency has scheduled a public hearing on Chrysler’s recall efforts for July 2.
75 deaths have been attributed to fires involving Jeep fuel tanks since 1998, according to the NHTSA, however to date Chrysler has confidentially settled all lawsuits related to allegedly defective Jeep fuel tanks except for the Waldens'.
Monday’s response to Chrysler’s motion pushes back on the company’s argument that the jury should not have been allowed to consider the personal wealth and income of CEO Sergio Marchionne, who testified in the case via video deposition. The plaintiffs claim that because Marchionne’s income was based on bonuses and his position as CEO depends on Chrsyler’s profitability, that he had a clear interest in preventing a large plaintiffs’ verdict.
Marchionne testified that the 1999 Jeep Grand Cherokee's fuel tank was "absolutely safe" - a claim that the plaintiffs said was refuted by Chrysler's own crash test data.
“Georgia law has long recognized that a witness’ interest in the outcome of a case is admissible,” the response states.
Chrysler spokesman Michael Palese told CVN that while the company expresses sympathy for Remington’s family and friends, that the jury should have been able to consider evidence that Chrysler says led the NHTSA to exclude the 1999 Jeep Grand Cherokee from a wider recall.
However in a statement released on Monday, Jim Butler said Chrysler’s motion is the latest attempt to avoid responsibility for their decision to use rear-mounted fuel tanks despite allegedly knowing the risks.
“FCA has tried to mislead everyone - the Court, the jury, the NHTSA and the public,” Butler said. “FCA should look in the mirror - its problem is the simple fact that its product is indefensible.”
A hearing on the motion for a new trial is set for July 14.
The plaintiffs are represented by Jim Butler and David Rohwedder of Butler Wooten Cheeley & Peak, James Butler of Butler Tobin LLC, George Floyd of Floyd & Kendrick LLC and attorney L. Catharine Cox.
The defendants are represented by Terry Brantley, Alicia Timm and Anandhi Rajan of Swift Currie McGhee & Hiers LLP, Brian Bell, Anthony Monaco and Andrew Albright of Swanson Martin & Bell LLP, Brian Westenberg and Sheila Jeffrey of Miller Canfield Paddock and Stone PLC, Erika Jones of Mayer Brown LLP and by attorney Bruce W. Kirbo.
The case is James Bryan Walden and Lindsay Newcombe Strickland, on behalf of Remington Cole Walden v. Chrysler Group LLC, case number 12-CV-472, in the Superior Court of Decatur County in the State of Georgia.
David Siegel can be reached at [email protected].