Jeep Fire Cases: Practical Issues
In defective product cases like the ones involving the rear-mounted fuel tanks on 1993-2001 Jeep Cherokees, 1993-2004 Jeep Grand Cherokees, and 2002-2007 Jeep Liberties, victim/plaintiffs must make a preliminary showing that the product was dangerous. In this case, there is substantial evidence that the gas tank position makes these vehicles dangerous. Furthermore, a company executive essentially testified under oath that not only are these vehicles dangerous, but also that the proposed “fix” is insufficient.
Next, the defendant has a chance to refute these allegations. In this case, most of these defenses fall short.
First Defense: Taxpayer Bailout
In prior cases, Chrysler/Jeep has argued that since it reorganized under Chapter 11 of the Bankruptcy Code after the taxpayers bailed it in 2009, it is now a new company and therefore not responsible for the actions of the old company. That claim is not only wrong, but fraudulent. In order to get the taxpayer money at the time of the bailout, the new company promised taxpayers that it would assume liability for the Chrysler vehicles already on the road. For the new company (Fiat Chrysler Automobiles) to now try to go back on that promise to try to avoid the consequences of its exploding gas tanks is a disgusting lie.
Courts have not bought it. The Supreme Court expressly rejected this very argument in the General Motors defective ignition switch matter, which is a similar case. In a ruling that arguably applies in both cases, a court held that GM’s knowledge of the ignition switch defect, and failure to do anything about it, made the “new GM” just as liable as the “old GM.” Further, our firm has written briefs on, made oral arguments about, and won this issue in a case that led to a jury verdict of $150 million against the successor manufacturer of these Jeeps, Fiat Chrysler Automobiles.
Second Defense: Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards
Defendants love to claim that because their designs met the federal government’s minimum standards, therefore the products were safe. That is a bad argument. The federal mimimums are the minimums that a manufacturer must meet to sell the vehicle in the United States—but they do not mean that the vehicle is safe. Many of the federal minimums are outdated or can be ‘gotten around’ by a determined manufacture.
Legally, the argument is plainly false. The federal regulations specifically point out that meeting the minimums does not make the manufacturer immune from lawsuits.
Third Defense: ‘Severe Wreck’
The above two arguments are based on the law. In terms of the collision itself, the manufacturer often argues that the wreck was so bad that the damages would have been the same whether the gas tank placement, or any other product, was defective or not. Many witnesses seemingly bolster this argument, because they testify that the wreck was “serious” or “severe.”
In truth, while the consequences of the wreck are often serious, the wreck itself may not have been particularly bad. Indeed, defective gas tank crashes often involve low-speed impacts which would have led only to bumps, bruises, or soreness if the gas tank had not exploded.
Conscious Pain & Suffering in Vehicle Fire Cases
In many wrongful death cases, the plaintiff is entitled to damages for the decedent’s pain and suffering. In these cases, the manufacturer sometimes argues that the decedent died instantly and therefore the plaintiff is not entitled to these damages. Manufacturers may also claim that the death was ‘instant’ and that the initial impact therefore caused the death—and therefore, they argue, the manufacturer should not be held liable for the defect.
Eyewitnesses who saw the decedent moving inside the car after the collision can refute this argument. Further, physical evidence from an autopsy may also reveal that the fire—not the initial impact—is what caused the decedent’s death.
A good product liability lawyer must build a case and also be ready for some common defenses. For a free consultation with an experienced personal injury attorney, contact Butler Tobin. We routinely handle products liability and negligence cases throughout the state.