Chrysler Acknowledges that Jeep Grand Cherokee Fuel Systems Need Safety Upgrades

Yesterday Chrysler group announced that it and NHTSA had supposedly "resolved their differences" regarding NHTSA's demand that Chrysler recall and fix the dangerous fuel tank design defect in Chrysler's 1993-2004 Jeep Grand Cherokees and 2002-07 Jeep Liberty vehicles.

"Chrysler's proposed 'agreement' about its bumper tank defect is nonsense," says Atlanta Georgia lawyer James E. ("Jim") Butler, Jr. Jim Butler, Leigh Martin May, and Jeb Butler of the law firm Butler Wooten & Peak LLP represent the parents of Remington Walden, who was killed by fire at age four on March 6, 2012 in Bainbridge, Georgia, when the 1999 Jeep Grand Cherokee in which he was riding was struck in the rear.

"The very idea of installing a trailer hitch to protect the rear-mounted fuel tank is a clear admission by Chrysler that the fuel tank location is not just defective and dangerous - it is stupid," Jim Butler said. "Chrysler put the fuel tanks on these Jeeps in a known crush zone. It's the very place where a tank is most vulnerable to one of the most common kinds of collisions -­ rear impact."

"The defect in these vehicles is simple and obvious: Chrysler placed the fuel tank next to the rear bumper. Now Chrysler wants to offer some of its customers a free tow package- but that doesn't fix the problem," said Leigh Martin May. "Chrysler won't even provide the free trailer hitch to people who own the same model year Jeep that killed Remington Walden - a 1999 Jeep. For Chrysler to claim it 'regards safety as a paramount concern and does not compromise on the safety of our customers and their families' is clearly false." (Chrysler's June 18, 2013 press release made that statement.)

"We certainly hope NHTSA does not once again sell out American citizens," Jim Butler added. "If it does, it is yet more proof NHTSA remains a captive agency - pretty much owned by the automakers."

"Chrysler's so-called 'analysis' won't withstand even basic scrutiny," Jeb Butler added. "All you have to do to know this fuel tank location is dangerous is look at it - right in front of the bumper and hanging below the bumper, obviously vulnerable to rear impact, particularly when the Jeep is hit by a lower-riding vehicle."

The trailer hitch Chrysler proposes to install in some, but not all, of the dangerous Jeeps is shown below:

Hitch proposed as fix for defective fuel system by Chrysler

An example of the results of Chrysler's deadly dangerous design is shown below:

Post-collision fire caused by defective fuel system

Once you really read what Chrysler has sent out, it is clear that all Chrysler has agreed to do is to have Chrysler employees conduct "visual inspection[s]" of some, but not all, Jeep Grand Cherokees and Jeep Liberties with bumper fuel tanks and to "upgrade" the structure of the rear of some of the vehicles if Chrysler deems that "necessary" - by installing a trailer hitch. All the Grand Cherokees and Liberties subject to the NHTSA recall notice have fuel tanks located behind the rear wheels, right in front of the bumper, hanging down below the bumper.

Chrysler's proposal followed a letter from NHTSA dated June 3, 2013, in which NHTSA formally asked Chrysler to "initiate a safety recall of these vehicles." Automakers have known for decades it was important to locate fuel tanks away from known crash zones. For example, an internal Chrysler memorandum from 1978 reveals that Chrysler has known for 35 years that "locating the fuel tank ahead of the rear wheels appears to provide good protection for the tank." Chrysler did not warn its customers about the dangers of tanks mounted behind the rear wheels. (The internal memorandum is attached to this release.)

In its June 3, 2013 letter, NHTSA announced that the 1993-2004 Grand Cherokees and 2002­2007 Liberties were defective because its investigation had "revealed numerous fire-related deaths and injuries." Included among these vehicles is the 1999 Grand Cherokee at issue in the lawsuit Bryan and Lindsay Walden filed against Chrysler in the Superior Court of Decatur County, Georgia, for the death of their four-year-old son, Remington (Remi) Walden.

Remi's aunt Emily Newsome was driving Remi to tennis lessons in his grandfather's 1999 Jeep Grand Cherokee when the vehicle was struck in the rear by a Dodge Dakota. Remi was properly restrained in his booster seat in the back seat. Remi's only injury from the collision itself was a fractured bone in his leg. But the vehicle in which he was a passenger, a Jeep Grand Cherokee, had a fuel tank located just inside the rear bumper of the car, unprotected from rear impact. The collision ruptured the fuel tank, causing a fire. Witnesses were unable to rescue Remi. The Grand Cherokee was engulfed in flames. Remi's death was caused by the fire.

Remi's death is memorialized on page 8 of the June 3 NHTSA letter by both a photograph of the burning Jeep Grand Cherokee and a listing of his death.

NHTSA had this to say about its conclusion that these Jeeps are defective: "[t]here is a performance defect and a design defect. The performance defect is that the fuel tanks installed on these vehicles are subject to failure when the vehicles are struck from the rear. Such failure can result in fuel leakage, which in the presence of external ignition sources, can result in fire. The design defect is the placement of the fuel tanks in the position behind the axles and how they were positioned, including their height above the roadway. The defects present an unreasonable risk to motor vehicle safety because people...have burned to death in rear impact crashes, there have been fires (without fatalities) in these vehicles from rear impact crashes that have, or could have, led to deaths and injuries, and there have been leaks from Grand Cherokee and Liberty gas tanks from rear impact crashes that could have led to fire and death or injury. "

Although Chrysler has finally relocated the fuel tank in its newer model Jeep Grand Cherokee and Jeep Liberty cars, putting the fuel tank ahead of the rear axle, where it is protected from rear impact, Chrysler has not warned owners of its other model year Jeeps with rear fuel tanks.

Representing Remi's parents from the Butler Wooten & Peak LLP law firm of Atlanta and Columbus, Georgia are James E. Butler, Jr., Leigh May, and Jeb Butler. Joining them on the case is Bainbridge lawyer George Floyd.

Butler Wooten & Peak LLP is a nationally-renowned law firm that has handled cases in 30 states and won record verdicts and settlements. The firm has extensive experience in automotive products liability cases and specifically in post-collision fuel-fed fire cases involving defective fuel systems and gas tanks. Butler Wooten & Peak LLP has previously handled three cases involving post-collision fires in Chrysler vehicles with rear fuel tanks. One of those cases involved a Jeep Cherokee which was hit in the rear, resulting in gas tank rupture, a fire, and the death of a family of three. If you have been injured in a fuel-fed fire due to a defective auto part, please contact our firm for a free consultation about your legal rights.

MEDIA CONTACT: James E. ("Jim") Butler, Jr. ( Jim@butlerwooten.com), Tel: (706) 322-­1990; or Leigh Martin May ( Leigh@butlerwooten.com), Tel: (404) 321-1700.