Defective Jeeps: Fires & Explosions
1993-2004 Jeep Grand Cherokees, 1993-2001 Jeep Cherokees, 2002-2007 Jeep Liberties
It happened again.
In Elyria, Ohio, the defective gas tank design of the 2007 Jeep Liberty claimed another victim. This time it was Vicki Hill, who was stopped at a traffic light when another driver struck her Jeep in the rear. Collisions like this happen every hour of every day across the United States. Most of the time, everyone walks away. But Chrysler had mounted the gas tank in Ms. Hill’s 2007 Jeep Liberty hanging low and right next to the rear bumper, where it was vulnerable in rear impact. So when the car struck Ms. Hill’s Jeep Liberty, the Jeep burst into flames. Vicki Hill could not escape the fire.
This photo shows the rear of Vicki Hill’s 2007 Jeep Liberty after the collision and fire. Note that the damage is not very severe—this was not a high-speed collision. This should have been a survivable crash, in which Ms. Hill suffered nothing worse than soreness, bumps, and bruises. But because of where Chrysler mounted the gas tank, Ms. Hill burned to death.
At the trial of a Jeep fire case handled in part by Butler Tobin, Chrysler hired an accident reconstructionist to testify. When we cross-examined him, we showed that speed wasn’t the problem. Chrysler’s defective gas tanks rupture at high speed and they rupture at low speed. The problem isn’t the speed—it is the tank.
This is not the first time the defective rear-tank design of these Jeeps has killed someone. The federal Office of Defect Investigation (“ODI”) has previously asked Chrysler Corporation—now called FCA, or Fiat Chrysler Automobiles—to recall its dangerous Jeeps, including the 2002-2007 Liberties, 1993-2004 Grand Cherokees, and 1993-2001 Cherokees. ODI’s recall request letter cited the evidence, and showed that people were burning to death in these Jeeps. But Chrysler fought the recall.
In 2012 in Bainbridge, Georgia, a similar Jeep exploded in a similar way. On that occasion, the vehicle was a 1999 Jeep Grand Cherokee, and the victim was 5-year-old Remington Walden. Like the 2007 Liberty, the 1999 Grand Cherokee had a low-slung, rear-mounted gas tank that Chrysler’s engineers admitted was “vulnerable to rear impact.” Our firm, along with the firm of Butler, Wooten & Peak, had the honor of representing the Walden family. We took the case to trial in the first-ever trial over this gas tank defect. Chrysler had settled all the other cases confidentially and out of court. Our case, Walden v. Chrysler, made headlines when the jury returned a verdict of $150 million.
After the verdict, the national press turned their attention to these Jeeps. The Center for Auto Safety, which had filed the initial petition demanding a recall from ODI, went public with its criticism of Chrysler. Chrysler responded to the pressure—and claimed that it would fix the issue. Chrysler offered what it called a “recall.” In reality, Chrysler offered free trailer hitches to owners of many of these defective vehicles, including the 2002-2007 Jeep Liberties. As we said at the time, that was not a real fix—Chrysler’s own vice president of engineering, Francois Castaing, swore under oath in 2011 that “the tow package does not protect the tank.”
The tragedy of Vicki Hill and her 2007 Jeep Liberty proves the point. Ms. Hill’s Jeep had the trailer hitch—and just as Chrysler’s VP of engineering had predicted, it did not protect her.
Chrysler put profits ahead of safety—again. Chrysler refused to warn Jeep owners about the danger—again. Chrysler refused to buy back the defective Jeeps—again. Now Ms. Vicki Hill of Elyria, OH has become Chrysler’s latest victim.
When will it stop?