Since January of 2013 we have written two posts about automobile recalls: one, “Toyota Settles Class Action Lawsuit for More Than $1 Billion,” detailed the company’s recall of up to 3.2 million vehicles and its subsequent settlement of a class action lawsuit with customers whose cars and trucks were affected; the other, “Subaru Recalls Ten Thousand Cars for Dangerous Defect,” was about a similar accelerator problem and this other company’s massive recall program.
Each of these cases involved a large-scale vehicle recall, but this new story is a rare example of an automaker refusing a federal request to recall its products for nearly a month until yesterday in what the Associated Press calls an “11th-hour deal between the automaker and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA).”
On June 9, 2013, CNN Money reported that the NHTSA claims the design of gas tanks in 2002 to 2007 model year Chrysler Jeep Libertys and 1993 to 2004 Jeep Grand Cherokees are unsafe. This comes immediately on the heels of an announcement on June 6 that the company would be recalling nearly half a million Jeeps over air bag and transmission issues.
The governmental agency (part of the Department of Transportation, itself situated within the executive branch) issued a request for recall of a massive 2.7 million SUVs, stating that the tank’s placement behind the rear axle makes these vehicles especially prone to catching fire in the event of a crash. This was not the first time Chrysler had resisted such measures; in 1996, the company did the same thing and eventually won a decision in federal court. This new deal between Chrysler and the NHTSA will cut the number of recalled vehicles from the initial figure of 2.7 million to 1.56 million, omitting the Jeep Grand Cherokees from 1999 — 2004 that the government originally identified as being dangerous.
The NHTSA began their investigation of the automaker after a tip from the Center for Auto Safety, a watchdog group in Washington, D.C. This organization reports that among Grand Cherokees, there have been 201 fire crashes, which have caused 285 deaths. As for the Libertys, there have been 36 accidents and 53 deaths. While neither the NHTSA nor Chrysler has estimated the cost of such a recall, the Center for Auto Safety places the figure somewhere around $300 million.
Chrysler issued a statement after the initial request, which says, “We believe NHTSA’s initial conclusions are based on an incomplete analysis of the underlying data, and we are committed to continue working with the agency to resolve this disagreement.” NHTSA Administrator David Strickland replied, “The driving public should know that NHTSA is actively investigating this issue and is requesting that Chrysler initiate a safety recall and notify all affected owners of the defect […] NHTSA hopes that Chrysler will reconsider its position and take action to protect its customers and the driving public.”
The AP notes that Chrysler’s new compliance with the government allows them to avoid public hearings during which witnesses may detail violent and graphic stories of vehicles catching fire. The article also adds, “The dispute could have landed in court and hurt Chrysler’s image and its finances,” although the very need for a recall on this large a scale may cause similar damage.
These recalls highlight the role of plaintiffs’ product liability lawsuits and the cooperation between attorneys and consumers in taking on large corporations in the interest of safety. And this new deal forces us to question the role of the government in such a recall, specifically why these one-million-plus vehicles that were dangerous and defective only two weeks ago no longer fall into this category.
You may read an additional discussion of this firm’s involvement in a lawsuit a few years ago on behalf of Kia owners who experienced serious problems with their brakes. The post was published on December of 2011 and it details our own firm’s auto defect jury award of $5.6 million against Kia Motors (“Philadelphia Trial Lawyers Prevail Against Kia in Class Action – $5.6 Million Recovered for PA Consumers”).