Press Release: Jeep Fire Case Filed in Ohio
Lawyers for the family of Mrs. Deanna Gilreath of Hamilton Ohio filed suit against Fiat-Chrysler Automobiles (“FCA”) in the Butler County Court of Common Pleas in Hamilton Ohio. Mrs. Gilreath burned to death on October 20, 2017 after a rear impact collision. Her 2004 Jeep Liberty had a gas tank located 10 inches from the back of the car. The car was struck in the rear by a truck owned by Tri State Concrete Inc. and driven by its employee Tracy Wayne Moore. The rear mounted gas tank ruptured causing an explosion from which Mrs. Gilreath could not escape.
Mrs. Gilreath’s seat back also collapsed, propelling her toward the flames. Bystanders were unable to rescue her from the burning Jeep.
Jeep Gas Tank and Seat Back Defects
The lawsuit contends that FCA has known for decades that locating the gas tank at the rear of a car behind the axle is a dangerous defect – and exposes occupants to burns or death from fires after common and foreseeable rear impacts. There are at least 71 prior wrecks already known to the Gilreath family’s lawyers where a rear gas tank on those Jeeps failed after rear impact – before Mrs. Gilreath burned to death on October 20, 2017. FCA and its predecessor “Chrysler” entities have been sued over and over again, ever since they first started selling the Jeeps with gas tanks located at the rear. (Complaint, ¶27.)
The evidence is clear and indisputable that FCA knew of the horrible danger posed by the rear gas tanks on FCA’s Jeeps. But FCA warned no one of that danger. Instead, FCA’s Chairman and CEO, Sergio Marchionne, repeatedly told the public that FCA’s rear-tank Jeeps were “absolutely safe.” Marchionne has admitted to repeatedly making that statement. The evidence shows that the statement was false.
The lawsuit also contends that FCA has known for decades that the seat backs in seats it installed in vehicles were defective and dangerous and were collapsing in common and foreseeable rear impacts. There are at least 29 prior wrecks already known to the Gilreath family’s lawyers where a front seat back failed after rear impact causing death or grievous injury to an occupant. (Complaint, ¶51.)
Jeep Explosion Lawyers
The lawyers representing the Gilreath family include the father-and-son team James E. (Jim) Butler, Jr. and Jeb Butler of Georgia. They represented the Walden family in another case against FCA that went to trial in April 2015, resulting in a $150 million verdict against FCA. That case was affirmed on appeal by the Georgia Court of Appeals (3-0 decision) and by the Georgia Supreme Court (9-0 decision). Jim Butler’s firm, Butler Wooten & Peak, has handled several Jeep fire cases. The Butlers are joined by Richard Hyde of Holcomb & Hyde, Hamilton Ohio; by Ramsey B. Prather of Butler Wooten & Peak; and by Alyssa Baskam of Jeb Butler’s firm, Butler Tobin.
In the Walden case in April 2015, the jury specifically found that FCA “acted with a reckless or wanton disregard for human life” in the design of the Jeep, and that FCA “had a duty to warn and failed to warn” about the dangers of the Jeep. The trial judge in the Walden case found that “[t]he evidence against FCA was overwhelming.” Walden v. Chrysler Group LLC, Order (Superior Ct. of Decatur Cty., Ga., April 2, 2015). On appeal, in affirming the trial court’s judgment, the Supreme Court of Georgia found that:
“[e]vidence showed that Chrysler had long known that mounting a gas tank behind the rear axle was dangerous. Evidence also showed that Chrysler’s placement of the gas tank behind the rear axle was contrary to industry trends, which favored placing tanks in front of the rear axle.”
Chrysler Group LLC v. Walden, 812 S.E.2d 244, 247 (Ga. 2018) (emphasis added).
Evidence about Danger of Jeep Gas Tank Location
That evidence came principally from FCA’s own documents and FCA’s own fuel systems engineers, one of whom admitted in the Walden case that the rear-tank Jeeps were “vulnerable to rear impact.” An FCA document showed that in crash tests the rear of the Jeeps were getting damaged so badly technicians were directed not to put any instruments in the rear-most 24” of the Jeeps, because the instruments were getting “crushed.” Yet FCA put the gasoline-loaded gas tank a mere 10” inches from the rear, and refused to warn its customers of the danger.
The Jeeps with rear gas tanks have been so controversial that in 2009 the independent non-profit Center for Auto Safety asked that the federal agency that is supposed to regulate automotive safety—the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, or “NHTSA”—to make FCA recall those Jeeps. In response, on June 3, 2013, the professional staff of NHTSA determined that those Jeeps “contained defects relating to motor vehicle safety” and asked FCA to recall them. In response, Sergio Marchionne—FCA’s Charmain and CEO—sought a private, undisclosed meeting with the highest automotive regulators in the U.S. government, the Secretary of Transportation and the Administrator of NHTSA. At that private meeting, Marchionne cut a deal with those political appointees of the Government. FCA agreed to recall some of the Jeeps, and to put a trailer hitch, also known as a “tow package,” on the rear of some of the Jeeps. That only made the danger worse, because in a rear impact the trailer hitch can be driven forward into the gas tank like a spear. That obvious and dangerous fact was well known to FCA. In fact, the President of Chrysler International had testified two years before Marchionne’s secret meeting that “the tow package does not protect the tank.”
The Gilreath family’s Jeep Liberty had a trailer hitch installed when it was sold to the family. In the wreck, that trailer hitch was pushed forward, like a spear, into the gas tank. FCA knew of that danger before Mrs. Gilreath burned to death.
“There’s absolutely no excuse for FCA’s conduct,” said lead counsel Jim Butler. “No automaker has sold vehicles with rear gas tanks for years, yet FCA refuses to warn anyone of the danger. The Gilreath family did not know.”
“FCA’s conduct is chilling,” said Jeb Butler. “The evidence lays bare the truth: FCA knew its Jeeps were burning people alive, and FCA did not care.”