Plaintiff's attorney Jim Butler shows jurors an image during his opening statement of the fire that allegedly killed 4-year-old Remington Walden, after the Jeep he rode in was rear-ended. Click here to see video from the trial. Click here for a copy of the complaint.Bainbridge, Ga. —Fiat Chrysler Automobiles faces allegations in a high-stakes trial that began Monday in Georgia state court that a defective fuel tank in a Jeep Grand Cherokee caused a fire that burned a child to death after a rear-end collision.
The case is the first to go to trial over claims that fuel tanks in older-model Jeep SUVs are prone to rupture and explode in a collision, according to attorney Jim Butler of Butler Wooten & Fryhofer LLP, who represents the plaintiffs. Fiat Chrysler announced a recall of roughly 1.5 million Jeeps in 2013 at the urging of U.S. regulators due to the fire risk, and consumer safety advocates say the trial could prompt renewed calls for a broader recall of the vehicles.
The 1999 Jeep Grand Cherokee at issue in the case was ultimately not part of the recall, although the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration initially requested it be included along with model years 1993-1998. The agency has attributed 75 deaths to fires involving Jeep fuel tanks since 1998.
Butler told jurors during his opening statement Tuesday that 4-year-old Remington Walden died in 2012 after the Jeep he was riding in was struck from behind at an intersection by a Dodge Dakota truck traveling at 56 miles per hour, and the Jeep's fuel tank exploded, according to a Courtroom View Network webcast of the proceedings. Butler claimed Chrysler knew of the risks from locating the vehicle’s fuel tank only 11 inches from the rear bumper but ignored the problem for years.
“In 1998 Chrysler knew that the gas tank on a 1999 Jeep Grand Cherokee would be crushed in a rear impact,” Butler said, noting that Chrysler relocated the fuel tank to the center of the car in later models. “Chrysler admits it could have put the gas tank on the 1999 Grand Cherokee in the midships position.”
Butler explained to the jury that everyone else involved in the accident, including the driver of the second vehicle and other passengers in the Jeep suffered comparatively minor injuries, and that the only reason the accident resulted in a fatality was the rear-mounted gas tank. Remington was restrained in a booster seat at the time of the accident.
“If the wreck does not kill you, then you should not be burned,” Butler said. “Had there been no fire none of us would be here today and that boy would be alive and well.”
Remington's parents sued Fiat Chrysler in 2012.
During his opening statements on behalf of Chrysler, Brian Bell of Swanson Martin & Bell LLP told the jury that the 1999 Jeep Grand Cherokee was not defectively designed, and that the explosion was the result of a crash at over 50 miles per hour that exposed the fuel tank to forces well in excess of what regulators required it to withstand.
“We’ve all stood on the side of the road changing a tire or crossing the street, and at 55 miles an hour your hair is blowing and it’s noisy. That’s a very severe collision,” Bell said. “This crash just overwhelmed the structure of this vehicle.”
Bell disputed autopsy results that indicated Remington died from the fire. He told jurors Remington had already died of a head injury from the impact of the crash before the fire reached his booster seat.
Following the parties' opening statements, Butler played deposition testimony given by Fiat Chrysler CEO Sergio Marchionne. Marchionne reportedly met with then U.S. Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood in 2013 after Chrysler initially rejected a recall over Jeep fuel tanks. Following the meeting the company said it would add rear tow hitches to 1.5 million vehicles, a fix that the agency later deemed adequate.
Under rapid-fire questioning from Butler in an edited video compilation of Marchionne’s testimony, the Fiat Chrysler chief was pressed on the issue of how much responsibility the company has for the safety of Chrysler’s vehicles. Italian automaker Fiat acquired Chrysler after the American company declared bankruptcy in 2009.
Butler claimed Fiat Chrysler should have been more forthcoming about the alleged danger from the rear-mounted fuel tanks after the company was acquired, but Marchionne said the tank on the 1999 Jeep Grand Cherokee doesn’t pose a public safety risk.
“Any accident is possible, but it’s not a safety defect,” Marchionne said. Butler immediately responded that Marchionne lacked the personal knowledge to make that assertion.
“People have done the work for me and have done what is necessary for me to make that assertion,” Marchionne replied.
Fiat Chrysler spokesman Michael Palese expressed sympathy for Remington's parents, but echoed Bell's arguments that the 1999 Jeep Cherokee was not defectively designed.
“The energy level of the impact was substantially higher than the applicable federal requirement for rear impacts, which the Jeep Grand Cherokee met,” Palese said in a statement. “A thorough analysis of rear impact crash data indicates that the 1999 Jeep Grand Cherokee is no more likely to experience fire as a result of a rear impact than peer vehicles.”
The trial before Judge J. Kevin Chason is expected to last up to three weeks. Courtroom View Network will present a gavel-to-gavel webcast of the proceedings.
The plaintiffs are represented by Jim Butler and David Rohwedder of Butler Wooten & Fryhofer LLP, James Butler of Butler Tobin LLC, George Floyd of Floyd & Kendrick LLC and attorney L. Catharine Cox.
The defendants are represented by M. Diane Owns, 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]