In one of the most significant product liability cases to come to trial in the United States in recent years, a Decatur County Superior Court jury had to determine whether the design of the 1999 Jeep Grand Cherokee was defective and caused the death of a four-year-old boy following a gas tank explosion. Walden v. Chrysler Group, LLC (12CV472).
On March 6, 2012, Remington “Remy” Walden was a back seat passenger in a 1999 Cherokee driven by his aunt. The Jeep was stopped, waiting for traffic to clear so that Walden’s aunt could turn left, when it was rear ended by Bryan Harrell’s vehicle. The jeep burst into flames, and Walden died before he could be extricated from the Jeep.
Walden’s parents filed suit against both Harrell and Chrysler, the manufacturer of the Jeep. They alleged that the design of the Jeep’s gas tank, which was located only 11 inches from the rear bumper, made it highly susceptible of being crushed in a rear-end collision, a defect known to Chrysler before the accident. They further alleged that Chrysler did not relocate the gas tank to a safer location in the center of the vehicle or take any steps to protect the gas tank from collision or warn customers about the hazard.
Although safety concerns had been raised about the design of the Jeep for years, Chrysler maintained that the vehicle was “absolutely safe.” In its defense, Chrysler pointed to a National Highway Traffic Safety Administration investigation into Jeep gas tanks that concluded in 2014. Although NHTSA originally recommended a mandatory recall of approximately 2.7 million Jeeps, including the 1999 Grand Cherokee, Chrysler eventually agreed to voluntarily install tow hitches, an additional protective measure, on 1.5 million of the vehicles but did not admit to any design defects. This agreement still did not cover the 1999 Grand Cherokee. NHTSA then closed its investigation.
At trial, one of plaintiff’s first witnesses was Sergio Marchionne, CEO of Fiat Chrysler, Chrysler Group’s parent company, who testified in a video deposition. Throughout most of his testimony, Marchionne provided only brief answers, often either denying that the Jeep was defective or stating he had “no way of knowing” various specific details that might indicate the Jeep was defective.
Eventually, however, Marchionne did volunteer some information, which plaintiff’s attorney James Butler immediately turned to his advantage. When asked about the NHTSA investigation that originally recommended the mandatory recall, Marchionne replied, “and NHTSA went on to say that the vehicle in question … did not have a safety defect.”
Immediately following Marchionne’s statement, Butler had Marchionne acknowledge that the final NHTSA safety report was only issued after what Butler characterized as a “secret” meeting on June 10, 2013, between Marchionne and Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood and NHTSA Administrator David Strickland. Marchionne then took exception to the characterization of the meeting as secret, whereupon Butler had Marchionne acknowledge that Chrysler had not notified anyone of the upcoming meeting.
Marchionne then resumed his pattern of denials, but Butler was able to immediately turn the CEO’s next denial to his advantage. Marchionne denied having any knowledge of warnings or complaints from Chrysler customers about the rear gas tanks before he stated that the Jeep was absolutely safe. Butler then called Marchionne’s attention to Chrysler’s brief in support of its motion for summary judgment in the case, in which Chrysler’s attorneys wrote: “Finally the Waldens likewise allowed their child to ride in the vehicle after news and media coverage about the NHTSA investigation into the subject vehicle.”
Marchionne’s deposition testimony set the stage for the hotly contested eight-day trial. After hearing all the evidence, the jury awarded the Waldens $150 million in damages and found Chrysler 99% responsible for Remy Walden’s death and Harrell only 1% responsible.
Steve Silver can be reached at email@example.com. Click here and here and here for CVN’s earlier reports on the case.
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