A Jeep Fire Story
On October 20, 2017, Mrs. Goodman was driving her 2004 Jeep Liberty in her hometown of Hamilton, Ohio. As she came to a stop, a truck driver who was following closely behind Mrs. Goodman’s vehicle rear-ended her. While the impact of the collision caused serious damage to her back bumper, to bystanders and the mourning family of the deceased Mrs. Goodman, what happened next was both unexpected and appalling. The rear-mounted gas tank on Mrs. Goodman’s Jeep ruptured, causing an explosion. Flames ignited the back of her vehicle as onlookers stopped and rushed out of their own cars after hearing her cries for help. What’s even harder to fathom is the fact that Mrs. Goodman’s seat functionality also failed her that day. When the truck collided into her Jeep, her seat back immediately collapsed, exposing her body to the flames in the rear of the vehicle. Mrs. Goodman struggled to escape, seatbelt still on, stuck in her reclined chair; unfortunately, no one could rescue her in time.
The unexpected loss of a loved one resulting from a car accident is both tragic and upsetting. For Mrs. Goodman’s family and others who witnessed the horrific incident that day in October, the Jeep fire scene is not something that is easily unseen or made sense of. Vehicles are purchased with the expectation of reliability. While a fender-bender can leave its mark and, in some cases, cause serious physical damage to the driver and vehicle, it should never result in your car catching fire or trapping you inside.
Defective Rear Tanks and Seatbacks
In April of 2018, the Jeep Wrangler out-sold many other popular vehicles with an astonishing 30,000 sales in one month alone. Jeeps have been popular since their initial production in the 1940s, advertised as the “original go-anywhere, do-anything vehicle” that appeals to many. However, over the last two decades, the makers of Jeep are facing scrutiny for selling known defective products.
Fiat Chrysler Automobiles (“FCA”) and its predecessors, “Chrysler” and
“DaimlerChrysler,” have known for decades that placing a gas tank at the rear of a vehicle is dangerous. An article published by L. S. Robertson in 1993 indicates that fuel tank positioning has a substantial effect on the integrity of the vehicle and whether it will catch fire—if the tank is placed behind the rear-axle, any rear-end collision could consequently injure or even kill passengers. Due to the large number of fatalities resulting from gas tank combustion and fires, the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration (“NHTSA”) issued a Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standard regarding fuel tank placement specification for several car models after 1977.
Well before FCA manufactured its rear gas-tank Jeeps from the 1990s to the 2000s, automakers knew that placing a tank behind the rear-axle of a car was hazardous. In fact, FCA’s own engineer stated that the vehicles were “vulnerable to rear impact.” (Estes Dep. 67:10-11). Nevertheless, FCA purposely disregarded safety precautions and continued to manufacture thousands of rear-mounted tanks in their 1993-2004 Jeep Grand Cherokees, 1993-2001 Jeep Cherokees, and 2002-2007 Jeep Liberties.
FCA has also known for several decades that the seat backs installed in its vehicles were defective. Historically, FCA’s seat backs failed multiple automotive tests for safety. Nevertheless, as with its rear-mounted gas-tanks, FCA continued to manufacture and sell vehicles with faulty seat back functionality. There are now 29 known incidents of front seat back failures after a rear-end collision causing death or severe injury to the occupant. The seat back defect is especially dangerous when associated with an exposed rear gas-tank, “because when the Jeep is rear-ended, the occupant is thrown rearward, which (1) moves the occupant closer to the fire, (2) disorients the occupant (making escape less likely), and (3) makes the occupant harder for bystanders to reach (making rescue less likely).”
In an attempt to salvage their reputation, FCA supplied customers with a cover-up solution rather than issue a full recall of the defective vehicles. When manufacturing the 2005 model Grand Cherokee, FCA moved the fuel tank from the previous rear mount to the mid-section of the vehicle. Furthermore, when creating the 2008 Liberty, they did the same; however, they failed to issue warnings to owners who were still driving the older, rear-mounted tank Jeeps.
When FCA was finally forced to recall those Jeeps with exposed gas tanks, instead of fully warning drivers of the defects and dangers, they provided customers with a free trailer hitch to serve as “fix” for the tanks (as shown below in Figure 1). The trailer hitches—FCA’s alleged “fix” to the rear gas-tank placement —in fact, caused more harm than it did help. In Mrs. Goodman’s case, the truck that rear-ended her, forced the trailer hitch to buckle and spear the exposed rear gas-tank. FCA’s purported solution failed.
FCA and Chrysler’s Denial
Automobile manufacturers in almost every product liability case attempt to argue that even if the vehicle was not defective, the wreck itself was so severe that the occupant would not have survived. Defense attorneys for these manufacturers typically question witnesses on the severity of the wreck, arguing that the post-collision tank rupture and subsequent fire are not what killed the victim. Manufacturers will try to shut down any possibility of the consumer recovering from them by making a case that they should not be liable for the victim’s death if it first and foremost resulted from the impact of the collision.
This is where deposition testimonies from eye-witnesses are so vital. The two eye- witnesses who testified in Mrs. Goodman’s case stated that they first saw Mrs. Goodman lying back all the way due to the seatback malfunction and collapse. They also testified that they witnessed her trying to free herself from the flames in the rear-end of the Jeep, but could not. This means that Mrs. Goodman was still conscious and moving immediately following the collision. Furthermore, the two witnesses stated they tried to rescue her from the burning vehicle, but were unable to do so because of the flames and due to the horizontal position her seat was locked in.
There are at-least 71 known prior wrecks where a rear gas-tank failed that resulted in a fire. Both FCA and Chrysler have been sued numerous times since they began selling the rear gas tank Jeeps. FCA knew of these dangers, yet proceeded to manufacture these defective products. Moreover, they knew their trailer hitch solution did nothing to lessen the danger of their rear gas-tanks, but, nevertheless, handed out hitches to customers as a “recall.” NHTSA is now conducting a federal investigation into these Jeep cases.
Mrs. Goodman and many others could have survived their rear-end collision accidents had the manufacturers of Jeep placed fuel tanks in the front or middle of the vehicle rather than the rear. Despite increasing evidence of the injuries and deaths resulting from Jeep fires and faulty seat backs, FCA continued to sell its dangerous vehicle and still refuses to cooperate by making a full recall on its Jeeps with rear-end mounted tanks.
If you or someone you know owns a Jeep model mentioned above, please be aware of the risk. And please speak with one our attorneys if a faulty rear-end mounted gas tank resulted in your injuries.