Earlier this year, in a case brought jointly by Butler Law Firm and Butler, Wooten, Cheeley & Peak, a jury imposed a $150 million verdict against Fiat Chrysler Automobiles (“FCA”) for a dangerous gas tank design that killed 4-year-old Remington Cole Walden and put millions of Jeep owners at risk. It was the first trial of its kind. The jurors, the media, the public, and the government all got the message—these vehicles are deadly-dangerous. But apparently, FCA still hasn’t accepted responsibility.
This month, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (“NHTSA”) continued its attempts to make FCA take care of its customers. NHTSA found that FCA had failed to properly report crash information and failed to properly implement recalls of dangerous vehicles already on the road. NHTSA fined FCA $70 million for failing to report information about deaths and injuries in its vehicles, and ordered FCA to spend another $20 million in fixing existing problems arising from its vehicles. On top of that, NHTSA ordered that if FCA does not get its act together—that is, if more violations emerge—FCA could have to pay an additional $15 million.
cross-examination of FCA engineer
This may not be big money to FCA, which paid a single employee—its CEO—over $60 million last year. But it’s a big deal to owners of defective Jeeps and other FCA vehicles that could put owners and their families at risk. Thanks in part to the publicity following the Walden family’s case, FCA will now be required to buy back millions of defective vehicles, including fire-prone Jeeps, and provide recall remedies for others. The Walden family deserves credit for their courage to take FCA to trial—if the family had not forced FCA into its first and only public trial over the defective gas tank design, the recall and buy-back campaigns that NHTSA is now pushing would likely have looked much different, if they had occurred at all. The family’s brave decision has almost certainly saved lives.
The Walden v. Chrysler case shows how jury verdicts can bring about change. In product liability cases, verdicts can force manufacturers to recall dangerous products and can get the message out that certain companies are not taking care of their customers. In DUI injury cases, jury verdicts can spread the word about the dangers of drinking and driving and can punish habitual drunk drivers. In negligent security cases, jury verdicts can force owners of apartment complexes to increase security to keep residents safe.
The Walden v. Chrysler case shows how positive change comes about. It takes collaboration. For years, Clarence Ditlow and the Center for Auto Safety have been compiling crucial information about the victims of FCA’s deadly Jeeps. News organizations like the Wall Street Journal have been reporting on the Jeeps, the recall, and the case. Private citizens like Jenelle Embrey have been pressing for action and writing books about the problem. Along with these messages, the jury’s $150 million verdict has forced positive change.
The Seventh Amendment to the United States Constitution protects our right to trial by jury. The Walden v. Chrysler case shows why.