Fiat Chrysler’s Jeep Fuel Tank Fires May Represent a Safety Crisis in the Making

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National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) reports that there are at least 58 burn-related fatalities and 119 non-fatal burn-related injuries due to vehicular accidents each year. One of the more common ways that vehicle fires occur is when a car, truck, or SUV with a rear gas tank placement is struck from behind. This impact can cause the vehicle’s fuel tank to rupture and ignite. Typically the fire will more through the vehicle extremely quickly. If vehicle occupants are rendered unconscious by the accident, or occupants become trapped in the vehicle extremely serious injuries or death can occur.

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How are Automobile Gas Tanks Regulated?

Since the 1970s, automobile fuel system integrity has been regulated by Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standard (FMVSS) 301. The original standard limited the amount of fuel spillage that could occur following a frontal, rear or side impact. However, in 2000, NHTSA announced that it was considering re-writing the rules to subject the fuel tanks to greater forces that more closely approximate those present in a accident. Changes to the standard include:

  • Establishment of a rear-impact test. The collision occurs while the rear vehicle is traveling at 50 miles per hour. This new standard, is based on FMVSS 213 testing procedures, replaces the previous FMVSS 301 standards and its original rear impact test that was conducted at approximately 30 miles per hour.
  • The new standard lowers the barrier face by 50 mm to better simulate crash impact.
  • Upgrade of the side impact test standard.
  • Use of a moveable and deformable crash barrier to better simulate real world conditions

The agency estimates that these standards – once all vehicles on the roadways comply —  will prevent approximately 8 to 21 fatalities a year. The cost per life saved is estimated to be $1.96 million to $5.13 million. A 2012 study assessed the effectiveness of the upgraded rule. For model year 2004 vehicles, the rate of fire in a rear impact collision is 2.58%. In the first full year after the upgraded standard went into effect, 2008, the rate of fires dropped to 1.10%. In 2009, the rate dropped to 0.83%.

Why are Gas Tanks in Fiat Chrysler Vehicles Rupturing and Exploding?

While there has been some success at reducing the number of vehicle fire fatalities, serious accidents can still occur. This risk may be compounded when the fuel tank is not adequately protected. This is what lawyers for several families affected by vehicle fires claim has occurred dozens, if not hundreds, of times.

Driver Making Phone Call After Traffic Accident

In a widely reported incident, 4-year-old Remington Walden suffered a horrifying fate. Remington was riding in his car seat in the back of a 1999 Jeep Grand Cherokee driven by his aunt. On the way to his tennis lesson, the vehicle was struck from behind. The vehicle was rapidly engulfed in flames with 4-year-old Remington trapped in his booster seat. According to the family’s lawyers, the boy was died screaming in the fire. The lawyers claim that a medical examiner has opined that Remington struggled for nearly a minute in the fire. The heat from the blaze was so intense that the boy’s chest fused to the door of the Jeep.

Lawyers for the family claim that Fiat Chrysler (FCA) knew of the dangerous fuel tank placement for more than a decade, but allege that company executives negotiated with federal regulators to avoid fixing the problem. Chrysler claims that the vehicles are “absolutely safe” and there is no problem with the fuel tanks. It instead argues that the speeds involved in the crashes are to blame for the fires and that perfect performance in these accidents would be  “far in excess of any reasonable expectations” for fuel tank performance.

Despite the pronouncements by the company, federal regulators have identified and confirmed 62 fatalities and more than 40 accidents involving fires after a rear impact collision. Consider that the more widely reported Takata airbag defect has resulted in only 4 confirmed deaths.  To date, the FCA fuel tanks problems have received relatively scant attention. However, pending court cases and an increasing death toll may transform this situation into one that can rival last year’s GM ignition switch recall.

NHTSA Sought a Mandatory Recall of Similar Vehicles in 2013 But FCA Opposed It

According to vehicle safety advocates, a number of tests have shown the potential rupture and fire present in 1993-2004 Jeep Grand Cherokees and 2002-2007 Liberties due to the vehicle’s rear-mounted fuel tanks. NHTSA began investigating based on these reports in 2010. For more than 3 years, Chrysler asserted that these vehicles were not defective. In mid-2013, NHTSA took a more aggressive approach when it sent a letter to Chrysler regarding the alleged defect. The letter stated that the fuel tank placement and performance constituted a defect that gave rise to an “unreasonable risk” of “burn[ing] to death in rear impact crashes.” However, FCA did not honor the regulator’s request for the recall.

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The issue remained unresolved until following a closed-door meeting between NHTSA administrator, the Transportation Secretary, and Chrysler’s CEO. In a recent videotaped deposition reported by CBS News the CEO confirmed that, “We ultimately resolved the issue…after that meeting.” Apparently terms of the deal required FCA to inspect and fix approximately 1.56 million affected Jeeps without admitting that a defect existed. Because the fuel tank was located between the rear axle and the bumper, the fix proposed by FCA involved the installation of a rear trailer hitch. NHTSA agreed that the hitch would provide some additional incremental protection for low to moderate speed collisions. The fix, however, would not be effective in higher speed collisions.

According to former NHTSA administrator Joan Claybrooke, this deal represented the minimum that FCA could do and that regulators could permit. She said, “It was a deal, the deal was that Chrysler had refused, refused, refused to ever do a recall of these vehicles. They knew that they had a problem and so they wanted to do the cheapest thing that they could do.”

It seems that some safety experts agree with this assessment of the agreed upon the fix. Chrysler engineer and the designer of the Jeep Cherokee, François Castaing, stated at a deposition that “A tow package does not protect the tank.” Similarly, when Ms. Claybrooke was asked for an explanation regarding the proposed fix she could not come up with one.

FCA Slow to Deploy Even This Fix for the Fuel Tank Defect

In July 2014, FCA stated that it believed that all repairs could be completed by mid-March 2015. However, by January 2015 recall statistics released by the automaker revealed that only 3% of the more than 1.5 million recalled vehicles had been repaired. According to research performed by Bloomberg, that represents the lowest repair rate per 1 million vehicles in the last 5 years. However, FCA has stated that it is taking additional steps to reach out and contact affected vehicle owners. Contact a Berks County car accident lawyer of The Reiff Law Firm today if you were injured in a car accident, gas tank explosion, or other gas fire explosion.

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