Jeep Fire in Car Accident in Spokane, Washington

Another Victim of Jeep Gas Tank Defect: Spokane, WA

It happened again.

In Spokane County, Washington, a Jeep was struck in the rear and exploded into flames.  The driver of the Jeep suffered severe burn injuries and although she was immediately hospitalized, she did not survive.  As reported by Maggie Quinlan in the The Spokesman Review, the he collision occurred on West Rutter Parkway, west of its intersection with North Indian Trail Road, in Spokane, Washington.

These Jeeps have been exploding in rear-impact collisions for decades now.  The reason is that millions of Jeep SUVs—including the 2002-2007 Jeep Liberties, 1993-2004 Jeep Grand Cherokees, and 1984-2001 Jeep Cherokees—were manufactured with gas tanks located in the extreme rear of the vehicles, behind the rear axles and right next to the rear bumper.  Most of the gas tanks were plastic.  When the Jeeps get rear-ended, the gas tank gets squeezed between the striking vehicle and the rear axle.  If the gas tank ruptures—as it often does—then gasoline sprays all over both vehicles and the roadway.  The gasoline can burn and the Jeep can explode.

This photo of Jeep Liberty, taken with the Jeep on a lift, shows the gas tank after we covered it in red tape to make it visible.

Jeep Fire Victims

This fatal fire in Spokane, Washington is the most recent of many.  This gas tank defect has claimed hundreds of lives, all across the country.  Our firm has worked on Jeep fire cases in Georgia, Ohio, Michigan, and Indiana.  Most Jeep fire cases have settled out of court, but our firm was a part of the only Jeep fire case to go to trial.  The result of that trial was a $150,000,000 verdict for the victim’s family.

The tragic part of the story isn’t the past as much as the future: this is going to keep happening.  There are millions of these Jeeps with rear-mounted gas tanks still on the road today.  Most of the people driving them have no idea about the danger.  Many mothers and fathers put their families inside these Jeeps, thinking that their children will be safe riding inside a hefty SUV manufactured by a classic American brand.  What they don’t know is that the owner of the Jeep brand—formerly Chrysler, and now “Fiat Chrysler Automobiles”—placed the gas tank in a historically dangerous place.

Jeep and Pinto Gas Tanks

If the dangers associated with rear-gas tanks sound like old news to you, you’re right.  Our country has been down this road before.  In the 1970s, Ford manufactured a compact car called the Pinto that infamously had a gas tank located right next to the rear bumper.

The Pinto was a disaster.  The Pintos leaked gasoline in rear impacts and hundreds of people burned to death.  Ford tried to sweep the mess under the rug at first, but when lawyers uncovered Ford’s “cost-benefit analysis”—in which Ford had mathematically calculated that it was more profitable for Ford to let people burn and pay the settlements than actually fix the problem—the public outcry was tremendous.  Thankfully, Ford stopped selling the Pinto, and almost all American automobile manufacturers stopped putting gas tanks next to the rear bumper.

On the left is a 1970s-era Ford Pinto. On the right is a 2002-2007 Jeep Liberty. Both gas tanks have been colored red.

Except for Chrysler.  The executives and engineers at Chrysler knew about the dangers of rear gas tanks.  In fact, an internal company memorandum from 1978 analyzed the Pinto and acknowledged the danger of gas tanks mounted in the rear.  But apparently, they didn’t care, because they kept making Jeeps with gas tanks mounted in this exceptionally vulnerable position.

In other words, all American automakers seem to have learned the obvious lesson of the Ford Pinto: don’t put the gas tank in the rear crush zone.  But Chrysler did it anyway in the 2002-2007 Jeep Liberties, 1993-2004 Jeep Grand Cherokees, and 1984-2001 Jeep Cherokees—millions of which are still on the road.

The consequences of that decision have devastated family after family across our country.  The tragedy in Spokane, Washington is the most recent example.  But it won’t be the last.

Recall of Jeeps with Rear Gas Tanks

As the number of burn victims mounted and pressure from nonprofit advocacy groups like the Center for Auto Safety increased, the federal government was finally forced to act.  On June 3, 2013, they finally asked Fiat-Chrysler Automobiles (“FCA”) to recall the Jeeps with rear gas tanks.  FCA refused.  But the pressure had built up too high, and both the federal government and FCA had to appear to do something.

What happened next was remarkable.  The Chairman and CEO of FCA, Sergio Marchionne, asked for a private meeting with the head of the U.S. Department of Transportation (“DOT”) and the head of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (“NHTSA”), which is supposed to regulate automakers.  He didn’t want anyone else present—no notetakers, no engineers, no safety advocates, no reporters, and no victims’ families.  Just the Chairman and CEO of the automaker, and two high-ranking politicians.

The politicians agreed.  One June 10, 2013—just a week after NHTSA had asked for a recall—the United States Secretary of Transportation and the Administrator of NHTSA traveled to an obscure federal building near Chicago O’Hare International Airport.  Sergio Marchionne flew in from Europe and met them there.  Just the three of them.

They reached a deal.  FCA would not have to buy the Jeeps back, or move the gas tanks, or install a shield, or issue a warning to the families who were putting their children in these Jeeps.  Instead, Jeep could offer free trailer hitches to some Jeep owners.  That was it.

The politicians did not seem concerned that just two years earlier, the “President of Chrysler International,” Francois Castaing, had testified under oath that “the tow package does not protect the tank.”  The politicians did not seem concerned that if that trailer hitch got bent in a rear-impact collision, it could spear the gas tank (as happened in the photos below).

The trailer hitch “recall” was FCA’s idea, and the politicians bought it.

The result was sad but predictable, and the American people are still paying the consequences of FCA’s decision and the position it took with regulators.  The fiery collision in Spokane, Washington is the most recent example, but it won’t be the last.