ATLANTA, GA, November 16, 2016 /24-7PressRelease/ — Plaintiffs Lindsay Strickland and Bryan Walden Respond to Court of Appeals Decision
Today the Georgia Court of Appeals affirmed Decatur County Superior Court Judge Kevin Chason’s rulings in Walden v. FCA (Fiat-Chrysler Automobiles, formerly known as “Chrysler”). The Walden v. Chrysler case was tried last year, in Bainbridge, GA, resulting in a verdict on April 2, 2015. Four 1/2 year old Remington (“Remi”) Walden died in flames after the 1999 Jeep Grand Cherokee in which he was a passenger was rear-ended and the gas tank, which was located at the extreme rear of the car, burst. The ruptured tank caused a gas-fed fire that Remington could not escape. Remi’s parents filed suit in 2012.
The jury verdict was $120 million for the parents’ wrongful death claim and $30 million for Remi’s pain and suffering claim. Judge Chason granted FCA’s post-trial motion for remittitur, reducing the wrongful death verdict to $30 million and the pain and suffering verdict to $10 million.
Walden was the first case involving Chrysler’s rear gas tank cars to go to trial. Chrysler had managed to settle all others without trial.
The Grand Cherokee in which Remington was a passenger had a rear gas tank located only 11 inches from the back of the car and hanging 6 inches below the bottom of the car. Plaintiffs claimed that Chrysler had known for decades about the dangers of that gas tank design and that a “midships” gas tank location – forward of the rear axle – was much safer. Plaintiffs claimed that Chrysler had itself been warned repeatedly that its rear gas tank design was dangerous in rear impacts. Those warnings came from Chrysler customers who’d been in Jeeps with rear gas tanks that ruptured in rear impacts, from Chrysler’s own knowledge of real world collisions, and from Chrysler’s own engineers.
Chrysler admitted that the rupture of the gas tank caused the fire and that it could have put the gas tank on the 1999 Grand Cherokee in the “midships” position. Plaintiffs argued there was no evidence that a “midships” gas tank would have been punctured in this wreck.
Plaintiffs presented evidence that Chrysler knew about 17 other rear impact wrecks where Jeep rear gas tanks failed before Remington Walden died on March 6, 2012. One of them involved a crash in New Jersey in 1998, where a young lady managed to escape her burning Jeep. On February 26, 1998 her mother, Norma Jean Friend, who owned the Jeep, wrote to Chrysler to warn it:
“In thinking about this afterwards, I can only imagine how horrible a situation it would be if a driver had to remove a child from a car seat, or could not get out of the car within moments.”
Two years and eight days later, Remington Walden, belted and in a booster seat, died from fire because no one could get him out fast enough.
“Remi’s parents are very appreciative of the Court of Appeals’ decision,” Jeb Butler said. “They hope that someday this will all be over.”
“It is simply unbelievable that FCA continues to deny this design is defective – a design the industry has known for decades is vulnerable and can cause the most horrible kind of death and injury,” said Jim Butler.
“FCA’s briefs and oral argument were fundamentally dishonest,” Jim Butler continued. “We are glad that the court saw through them.”
Plaintiffs contended that the rear was a bad place to put something as dangerous as a gas tank, and that the gas tank on the Chrysler Jeeps was particularly vulnerable to rear impact because it was only 11 inches from the rear, hanging 6 inches below the bottom of the car.
Chrysler engineer Estes admitted at trial that the rear gas tank “is vulnerable to rear impact” and that in 1998, Chrysler knew that the rear gas tank on a 1999 Grand Cherokee would be crushed in rear impact. Estes admitted that for the 30 mph crash tests, Chrysler had a rule against putting any instruments in the back 24 inches of the Jeeps – where the gas tank was located – because Chrysler knew they would be crushed.
Chrysler itself injected into the trial the investigation of the rear gas tank Jeeps by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA). Plaintiffs argued to Judge Chason that he should exclude the NHTSA investigation altogether, or should allow all the facts about that investigation into evidence.
Judge Chason ruled before trial:
“Chrysler seeks to introduce the document by which NHTSA closed the investigation (labeled “ODI Resume” and dated 11/11/14) but simultaneously exclude the fact that an investigation ever occurred and the process that led to that closure of the investigation. It would be both inconsistent and misleading to admit evidence regarding the closure of the NHTSA investigation, but simultaneously exclude evidence that the investigation ever occurred. If Chrysler seeks to make arguments based on the closure of the investigation, then as a matter of fairness, Plaintiffs are entitled to introduce evidence about how that closure occurred, what that closure means, and what events led to the closure of the investigation.”
The Court of Appeals affirmed that ruling.
FACTUAL BACKGROUND REGARDING THE NHTSA INVESTIGATION
On June 3, 2013, after a long investigation, that agency’s Office of Defects Investigation (ODI) notified Chrysler that it believed the Jeeps with rear gas tanks were defective because of the gas tank location. On June 7, 2013, Fiat-Chrysler Chairman Marchionne requested a private meeting with then-NHTSA Administrator David Strickland. That meeting was held in secret on June 10, 2013 at the FAA office at Chicago O’Hare airport. At Marchionne’s request, the meeting was limited to himself, Strickland, and then-Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood. (NHTSA is an agency within the Department of Transportation.) The career professionals from ODI who had spent nearly three years investigating the jeeps were not invited. LaHood later told the press that the three men reached agreement at that meeting.
NHTSA agreed to let Chrysler recall some of the Jeeps and add trailer hitches to them, for “incremental protection in certain low speed impacts.”
Strickland then left NHTSA and became a partner at the Venable law firm, which has for years represented and done lobbying work for Chrysler. Plaintiffs’ counsel in the Walden case sought to depose Strickland, who referred them to the NHTSA lawyers, who denied Plaintiffs’ request to depose Strickland. One of Chrysler’s lawyers in the Walden case was former NHTSA Chief Counsel Erika Z. Jones.
In the trial Chrysler contended that the ultimate NHTSA decision agreeing with Chrysler’s proposed recall meant those Jeeps were not defective. Plaintiffs responded by showing that ODI never retracted its finding of defect, but that the investigation was closed only when the top political officials, the Administrator Strickland and the Secretary LaHood, directed it be closed.
ODI had investigated four different Jeep models with rear gas tanks – the Cherokee, 1993-98 Grand Cherokee, 1999-2004 Grand Cherokee, and 2002-2007 Liberty. ODI found that the latter three were defective. After the private secret meeting in Chicago, NHTSA approved Chrysler’s proposed trailer hitch recall only for the 1993-1998 Grand Cherokee and 2002-2007 Liberty, but not for the 1999-2004 Grand Cherokee model that was at issue in the Walden case. The Walden case was then pending, having been filed on July 7, 2009.
NHTSA’s decision to let Chrysler recall two of the models ODI had concluded were defective came just two years after the former head of Engineering for Chrysler, Francois Castaing, testified under oath that the trailer hitch does not protect the tank. At trial Chrysler’s own expert witness Jon Olson, formerly a Ford fuel systems engineer testified that adding a trailer hitch “can be a detriment” in rear impacts except at low speeds, and “can become a puncture source.”
Chrysler sought to defend its rear gas tank design at trial by claiming that back in 1999 other automakers were still putting gas tanks at the rear on some of their vehicles. Plaintiffs showed, as ODI had found, that automakers had been abandoning the rear gas tank design for decades, that Chrysler well knew the safety benefits of a midship gas tank location, that Chrysler itself had moved gas tanks on many of its cars, pickups, and SUVs to the midship location before 1999, and that no automaker currently sells any passenger cars in this country with a rear gas tank. Plaintiffs presented multiple Chrysler documents from before 1999 where Chrysler itself wrote – including in advertising brochures for various Chrysler vehicles – that the gas tank was located midships “for protection in rear impacts.”
On appeal and at trial, Plaintiffs were represented by Jim Butler of Butler Wooten & Peak (Atlanta and Columbus, Georgia) and Jeb Butler of Butler Tobin (Atlanta, Georgia), George Floyd (Bainbridge, Georgia), Cathy Cox (formerly of Bainbridge and currently President of Young Harris College in Young Harris, Georgia), and David Rohwedder of Butler Wooten & Peak.
On appeal FCA was represented by Thomas H. Dupree, Jr. and Rajv Mohan of Gibson Dunn & Crutcher of Washington D.C. At trial FCA was represented by Brian Bell and Anthony Monaco of Swanson Martin & Bell (Chicago, Illinois); Diane Owens, Terry Brantley, and Alicia Timm of Swift Currie (Atlanta, Georgia); Sheila Jeffrey and Brian Westenberg of Miller Canfield (Detroit, Michigan); Erika Z. Jones of Mayer Brown (Washington, DC); Alan DeGraw of Chrysler (Auburn Hills, Michigan); and Bruce W. Kirbo Jr. (Bainbridge, Georgia).
MEDIA CONTACT – James E. (Jim) Butler, Jr. (firstname.lastname@example.org; office 706-322-1990; James E. (Jeb) Butler III (email@example.com; office 404-587-8423)