Fires & Explosions in Jeeps with Rear Tanks
The 1993-3004 Jeep Grand Cherokees, 1993-2001 Jeep Cherokees, 1997-2007 Jeep Wranglers, and 2002-2007 Jeep Liberties all have gas tanks mounted in the extreme rear, next to the rear bumper. When the Jeeps get hit in the rear, the tanks can rupture and the Jeeps can explode. People can burn alive. That has been happening for decades.
What Fiat Chrysler Automobiles did, and continues to do, with its rear-tank Jeeps is chilling. When we took FCA to trial over these defective Jeeps, the jury found that FCA “acted with reckless or wanton disregard for human life” and returned a verdict of $150,000,000 for our clients. It was the first time any law firm had forced FCA to go all the way to trial.
They are a danger to the people who drive them, most of whom don’t know about the defect. They are danger to the people who ride in them. And they are a danger to people who share the road with them.
What FCA Knew about Jeep Fires
FCA knew before it sold these rear-tank Jeeps that they would catch fire or explode after rear impact. The whole automotive industry, including FCA, had learned about the danger of rear-mounted tanks in the 1970s with the infamous Ford Pinto. But FCA (through its corporate predecessor, Chrysler) sold the Jeeps anyway. FCA warned nobody about the danger and, despite sustained pressure from safety advocates, has refused to buy the Jeeps back or conduct a meaningful recall. As a result, many of these dangerous rear-tank Jeeps remain on the road today.
Our firm has handled multiple cases in which people burned to death inside these rear tank Jeeps. Along with Butler, Wooten & Peak, we are the only firm that has forced FCA to trial on this defect. At the end of the trial, in addition to returning a verdict of $150 million and finding that FCA had acted with “reckless or wanton disregard for human life,” the jury found that FCA had failed to warn of a known danger. In other words, the jury confirmed that FCA knew about this problem, and still failed to keep its customers safe.
The jury that heard this closing argument returned a verdict of $150,000,000.
FCA’s “Recall” of the Exploding Jeeps
Eventually, FCA couldn’t deny the danger any longer. Following pressure from nonprofits, safety advocates, customers, victims, lawyers, and media, FCA agreed to conduct a recall of at least some of the rear-tank Jeeps. But this would not be an ordinary recall.
In 2013, FCA’s Chairman and CEO, Sergio Marchionne — who had previously told the public that these Jeeps were “absolutely safe” — arranged a private meeting with top government bureaucrats to talk about a recall. The federal Office of Defects Investigation (“ODI”) had already written FCA a letter requesting a recall and announcing that the Jeeps with rear gas tanks contained “defects related to motor vehicle safety.” Marchionne wanted to put a stop to that investigation.
So Marchionne flew from his home in Switzerland to Chicago O’Hare Airport, where he met in private with the United States Secretary of Transportation, Ray LaHood, and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s (NHTSA’s) Administrator, David Strickland. Nobody else was present at the meeting. No agency staff or engineers were present. There were no safety advocates, customers, victims there. The media was not told about the meeting. According to Marchionne’s later testimony, no notes were kept. There were no records at all, he swore.
The three men reached a deal. FCA would invite Jeep owners to bring their Jeeps into a dealership and, if the Jeep didn’t already have an original trailer hitch on it, FCA would give the customer a trailer hitch for free. In return, the government agreed to drop the investigation.
Trailer Hitches & Jeep Fires
There was one problem: the trailer hitch couldn’t protect the tank. In fact, just two years before, a senior FCA engineer named Francois Castaing had testified under oath that the tow package did not protect the tank.
Francois Castaing was absolutely right — the tow package does not protect the tank. In fact, the tow package and trailer hitch receiver only made things worse because when the trailer hitch receiver got hit, it buckled and pierced the exposed, plastic gas tank like an arrow.
Below are three real-life pictures from rear-tank Jeeps that had the trailer hitch receiver that FCA offered as a recall. In each case, the Jeep was hit in the rear, the hitch buckled forward, the buckling hitch speared the gas tank, the Jeep burned, and the driver died in the flames. The gas tanks are no longer visible because they melted in the fires.
Jeep Fires: Where We Are Today
Millions of these Jeeps with exposed gas tanks are still on the road today— some with the trailer hitches, and some without. FCA still denies that there is any problem and refuses to conduct any recall. Marchionne continued to announce that the Jeeps were “absolutely safe.” Ray LaHood, who met in private with Marchionne at Chicago O’Hare Airport, now works for the world’s largest law firm, DLA Piper. And David Strickland, the NHTSA Administrator who ended the federal investigation into these exploded Jeeps, went to work for a Washington, DC law firm named Venable LLP — which does lobbying work for FCA.