Butler Kahn has recently been retained to work on the van crash on I-85 that killed six people and injured six more. As reported in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, the tragic crash apparently began when the driver of the van swerved to avoid another vehicle or an obstacle. Then the van – a 2002 Ram 15-passenger van, which is known among product liability lawyers for its safety problems – rolled over and caught fire. Six occupants escaped the burning van after a bystander kicked out the windshield. Six did not.
But there’s a story that the media isn’t telling yet.
Bystanders pull one of the passengers out of the burning van.
Rollover and Stability Defects
Our lawyers have been handling automotive product liability cases for over ten years and these vans are notorious among product liability lawyers for their stability defects. The vans can be driven by anyone with a regular, class-C driver’s license. That’s a big problem, because maneuvers that would be safe and maybe even smart in most cars – like swerving to avoid another car or an obstacle – can prove fatal in the 15-passenger vans.
The reason is that the vans are fundamentally unstable when loaded. To create and sell those vans, most manufacturers (including Chrysler/Dodge) simply took an existing van and made the part behind the rear axle longer by a foot and a half. That means that when the driver of the van has to swerve, the rear of the van kicks out to the side more than most drivers would anticipate and leads to “fishtailing” and loss of control. When the van is loaded near its capacity – like in this case – the problem is even worse because the fishtailing effect is stronger and the van is top-heavy. So drivers may swerve to avoid something and think that they’re making a smart move to keep their passengers safe, but the van rolls over.
Chrysler/Dodge has known about these defects for decades. Almost twenty years ago, the safety-oriented nonprofit Public Citizen published an exposé on these vans. The federal government, through the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (“NHTSA”), issued warnings in that same time frame. The solution was simple – manufacturers could add dual rear wheels, just like you see in millions of pickup trucks on the roads today. In fact most of these vans share a chassis with a pickup truck that is already sold with dual rear wheels. But manufacturers never offered dual rear wheels on their vans because it would have cost more than they were willing to pay.
Fire and Fuel System Defects
The fire in this collision is surprising. An age-old rule in automotive design is this: “if the wreck doesn’t kill you, you should not burn.” We have handled several post-collision fuel-fed fire cases against Dodge/Chrysler (now called “FCA” for “Fiat Chrysler Automobiles”), including one that led to a $150,000,000 verdict, and that company has had repetitive problems with post-collision fires. For decades, beginning long before 2002, vehicles sold in the United States have been required to undergo testing for fuel system safety pursuant to Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standard (“FMVSS”) 301. That test requires that fuel should not leak in significant quantities even if the vehicle rolls over after an impact. Clearly, fuel leaked in significant quantities here.
Until we can inspect the van, which is now in police custody, there’s no way to tell for sure why the fuel leaked. But the piece that should have kept fuel from spilling, even when the van tipped over, is called a “rollover valve.” See the diagram below for a rough picture of it.
Chrysler has had problems with rollover valves. In other Chrysler vans, such as the Dodge Caravan and Plymouth Voyager, Chrysler had to recall its vehicles because “the fuel tank rollover valve can allow fuel to pass into the vapor canister resulting in the potential for fuel leakage,” which “increases the potential for a vehicle fire.” Did Chrysler use that same defective rollover valve in this 2002 Ram Van? We don’t know yet. What we do know is that gasoline was leaking onto the roadway after this van tipped over, and that should not have happened.
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