Jeep Gas Tank Fires: The Defect, The Evidence, & The Lawsuit Filed
Our country has rules. It is against the law for one person to walk up to another and kill him in order to take the money out of his wallet. Killing another person for money is wrong. A person caught doing it would face life in prison or, in some states, the death penalty.
The same rule should apply to companies.
Automobile manufacturers have known for decades that putting a gas tank next to the rear bumper kills people. The whole automotive industry learned that in the 1970s with the notorious Ford Pinto. When a Pinto, which had a rear-mounted gas tank, got struck from behind, the Pinto’s tank would get crushed. Gasoline would leak. Fires and explosions followed. After the Pintos repeatedly caught fire and burned people, most automakers stopped putting gas tanks in the extreme rear of their vehicles. Of course, it was easier for automakers to place gas tanks in the extreme rear—there’s a big empty space behind the rear axle, and it’s easy to put a tank there. But rear-mounted tanks were deadly, and people were burning to death. So most automakers stopped putting gas tanks next to the bumper.
For the most part, that included Chrysler (now known as “Fiat Chrysler Automobiles” or “FCA”). In 1978, a Chrysler engineer circulated a memorandum around the company that discussed the Ford Pinto and concluded that “locating the fuel tank ahead of the rear wheels appears to provide good protection for the tank.” By 1985, Chrysler’s “Dodge” brand of vehicles was advertising that all but one of its cars had the gas tank located “forward of the rear suspension . . . giving it protection” in a rear impact. In the 1990s, Chrysler was advertising in its brochures that its gas tanks were “mounted for impact protection ahead of the rear suspension” or “mounted ahead of the rear axle for protection.”
But Chrysler made an awful exception.
Rear-Mounted Gas Tanks in Jeep Grand Cherokees, Cherokees, and Liberties
In millions of vehicles sold under its “Jeep” brand, Chrysler placed the gas tank behind the rear axle—right where it had been in the Ford Pinto. In the 1993-2001 Jeep Cherokees, 1993-2004 Jeep Grand Cherokees, and 2002-2007 Jeep Liberties, Chrysler mounted the gas tanks eleven inches from the extreme rear of the vehicles and left the tanks hanging down six inches below everything else. Other manufacturers had long since stopped putting gas tanks there. Chrysler’s design put customers and their families at risk. One of Chrysler’s own engineers would later admit under cross-examination that these Jeep gas tanks were “vulnerable to rear impact.”
Fires and Explosions in Rear-Tank Jeeps
People were dying in these Jeeps, and Chrysler knew it. Chrysler’s own customers were sending warnings to the company. One woman whose daughter was nearly killed wrote Chrysler a letter in 1998 warning that after a rear impact, her daughter’s Jeep “was on fire because the gas tank had been hit.” She wrote that she could not imagine what would happen to a person who “could not get out of the car within moments.” Many others called Chrysler and warned the company about fires and leaking fuel. Chrysler’s internal records prove that Chrysler received these calls and knew exactly what was happening with its Jeeps.
Not everyone caught inside a burning Jeep was able to escape. Many of Chrysler’s customers or their family members burned to death inside. When that happened, lawsuits were sometimes filed. Chrysler got sued over and over. For decades, Chrysler settled every one of those cases quietly outside of court, always insisting on confidentiality.
Only one rear-tank Jeep fire case ever went to trial. That trial occurred in 2015 in Bainbridge, Georgia when a family represented by our firm and Butler, Wooten & Peak refused to take Chrysler’s settlement offer. The jury found that Chrysler “acted with reckless or wanton disregard for human life” and returned a verdict of $150 million. The Georgia Court of Appeals and Georgia Supreme Court affirmed the trial court’s judgment.
What FCA Knew about Rear-Tank Jeep Fires
Chrysler knew that the rear of its Jeeps would get crushed in a rear impact. In Chrysler’s internal rear-impact crash tests, the rear-most twenty-four inches of the Jeeps were getting crushed—so in 2000, Chrysler told its crash test engineers to stop putting test instruments in that crush zone because the expensive instruments were getting smashed. Losing the test instruments was costing the company money. Chrysler showed less concern for its customers. Although Chrysler saved its test instruments by removing them from the rear-most twenty-four inches of its Jeeps, it left the gas tank only eleven inches from the rear. The results were obvious: smashed, leaking tanks on America’s roadways.
In 2013, at the urging of the nonprofit Center for Auto Safety, the federal government asked FCA to recall these rear-tank Jeeps. FCA refused. After the government warned FCA that the rear-tank Jeeps “contained defects related to motor vehicle safety” and “present[ed] an unreasonable risk,” FCA’s CEO and Chairman, Sergio Marchionne, sought a secret meeting with top political government officials. Marchionne met with two political appointees—U.S. Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood and NHTSA Administrator David Strickland—at Chicago O’Hare International Airport. The meeting was not announced. No records were kept. Nobody else was allowed in the room. In that secret meeting, Marchionne and the high-ranking political officials worked out a deal. Instead of doing a full recall or buying back the Jeeps, FCA would do something less expensive.
FCA would provide free trailer hitch receivers on certain rear-tank Jeeps.
Safety advocates were furious. Although Marchionne may not have mentioned it at the secret meeting, FCA knew that trailer hitch receivers weren’t enough to protect the Jeeps’ rear-mounted gas tanks. Not nearly enough. In fact, in a rear impact, the hitch receiver could buckle or fold, then get driven into the rear-mounted gas tank like a spear. That would pierce the tank. A pierced tank would lead to leaking gasoline. Leaking gasoline would lead to fires and explosions. FCA knew that, even if the government didn’t. The President of Chrysler International had testified under oath in 2011, two years before the secret O’Hare meeting, that “the tow package does not protect the tank.”
Chrysler knew the truth.
In many states, including Georgia, manufacturers have a duty to warn customers about a product (like an automobile) that the manufacturer knows is dangerous. The manufacturer should usually warn the customer before it sells the product. If the manufacturer learns than the product is dangerous after selling it, then the manufacturer should issue a warning to the customer at that time.
Chrysler never warned a single customer about the dangers of its rear-mounted gas tanks. Chrysler never warned a single customer about the dangers of a hitch receiver mounted on such a vehicle. Not before a sale, and not after. Instead, Chrysler and FCA did the opposite. Instead of warning people, Sergio Marchionne—who was getting paid over $50 million per year by FCA—repeatedly told FCA’s customers that its rear-tank Jeeps were “absolutely safe.” That was a lie.
Chrysler was killing people in order to save money.
And it still is.
Another Jeep Liberty Explodes
On October 20, 2017, it happened again. The driver of a 2004 Jeep Liberty—who was a nurse, a wife, and a mother of two sons—was sitting at a traffic light in her 2004 Jeep Liberty in Hamilton, Ohio. Her Jeep had the trailer hitch receiver. A truck struck her Jeep in the rear. The hitch receiver buckled and knifed forward. It pierced the tank. Gasoline leaked. The Jeep exploded. Two nearby drivers jumped out of their vehicles and rushed toward her burning Jeep. They could not save her.
She burned to death.
This has to stop.
Our firm, along with Butler, Wooten & Peak, represents the decedent’s family. This week we filed the family’s case against FCA in the Court of Common Pleas in Hamilton, Ohio. The official Complaint is available here, and the Daily Report’s article about the filing is available here. The Complaint shows excerpts from the internal FCA documents proving that FCA knew about the dangers and hid them. It identifies more than sixty other collisions known to us (there are almost certainly more) in which rear-mounted Jeep tanks leaked after rear impact.
When FCA sold these rear-tank Jeeps, the executives at FCA decided that instead of moving gas tanks forward of the rear axle, they would let people die. By refusing to buy back these dangerous rear-tank Jeeps and instead allowing them to stay on the road, FCA’s executives are currently deciding to save money and allow more people to burn.
FCA’s customers, including the family that we represent, deserved better. If an individual person killed people for money, that person would get a life sentence or worse. All FCA’s executives got was another paycheck.
Our law firms have already held FCA accountable in court once. Apparently, that wasn’t enough.