Crazy Ray’s Give Away!

T-Minus three and counting before the rollercoaster ride that is the tenure of Department of Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood careens to a stop. But, not before he did one last handstand for the crowd.

With the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and Chrysler on a collision course over a recall to remedy the aft-of-the axle fuel tank design of the early model Jeep Grand Cherokees and some Jeep Liberty SUVs that is prone to explode into flames in a rear impact, LaHood, donned his super-hero tights and flew to what he imagined to be the rescue.

Now, most backroom deals attempt to stay on the QT. But, Ray LaHood, never one to miss an opportunity to pat himself on the back, could not be silent. He gave David Shepardson of The Detroit News the scoop: Six days before Chrysler would have to formally respond to NHTSA’s request that Chrysler recall 2.7 million 1994-2004 Jeep Grand Cherokees and 2002-2007 Jeep Liberty SUVs, Ray got Chrysler Group CEO Sergio Marchionne on the blower and said something like, “Look here, old man, no one takes safety more seriously than Ray LaHood and we’ve got to figure this Jeep thing out!”

Chrysler had heretofore demonstrated a very public unwillingness to recall those Jeep models, based on a shaky statistical analysis that threw every model on the wall it could think of to make the pre-2005 Jeep Grand Cherokee (before they moved the tank) look not-so-horrible. On June 9, LaHood drove from his home in Peoria, Ill; Marchionne flew in from Italy and David Strickland, ever playing Jimmy Olsen to LaHood’s Superman, flew from D.C. to Chicago. The trio converged at the Federal Aviation Administration building at O’Hare Airport for a “tough, hour-long ‘frank’ meeting,” according to Shepardson’s story.

As reported by Shepardson, Marchionne dispatched some engineers the next day to D.C. to come up with “the outlines” of a remedy with NHTSA. In public, the confrontation appeared to build, encouraged by business and auto journalists who seemed excited by the prospect of Chrysler sticking its finger in the government’s eye. Just as the showdown drew nigh, the automaker announced that it would implement a “voluntary campaign” to add trailer hitches to some older models.

Ray could not contain his enthusiasm for the remedy:

The Wages of Fraud

We’re not sure how often federal Chief Judges invite plaintiffs’ attorneys to sue individual defense lawyers for committing fraud upon several courts, but we’re guessing that if it were more often, the temptation to deliberately obfuscate discovery would be less compelling. And we definitely wouldn’t see lawsuits like the one Scottsdale attorney David L. Kurtz filed against Goodyear Tire and Rubber Company; its Arizona counsel, Graeme Hancock, and his firm, Fennemore Craig; lawyer Basil Musnuff, and his former Akron law firm, Roetzel & Andress; and Goodyear’s Associate General CounselDeborah Okey.

Kurtz, a products liability attorney for 30 years, who spent the first two-thirds of his career on the defense side says, “This is the worst corporate conduct that I’ve seen. I’ve never seen lawyers act this way. It breaks the system.”

The seven-count, 153-page lawsuit, filed in Arizona State Superior Court, seeks punitive damages via a jury trial for five years of delay and deception in a product liability action involving the G159, a tire Goodyear developed for the urban delivery vehicle market, but sold to the recreational vehicle market, even though it was wholly unsuited for that use. In June 2003, the Haeger family became one of the many victims of this mismatch. Leroy Haeger was at the wheel of his Spartan Gulf Stream Coach on Interstate 25 in New Mexico, when the right front tire failed. The Gulf Stream veered to the right and then rolled over, seriously injuring Leroy and Donna Haeger, along with their passengers, Barry and Suzanne Haeger.

Will Chrysler stand behind the Jeep?

Well, today’s the day Chrysler must formally tell NHTSA to pound sand or agree to recall the 1993-2004 Jeep Grand Cherokee and the 2002-2007 Jeep Liberty to mitigate a behind-the-rear-axle fuel tank design that makes it vulnerable to fuel-fed fires in rear impacts.

We will not speculate. We have, however, hired Randy Whitfield of Quality Control Systems Corporation to see if he could replicate Chrysler’s first – and less favorable, albeit more accurate – method of comparison of fire-related, fatal rear-impact crashes.  

Chrysler and the Jeep - Outlier?

So Chrysler has thrown down the gauntlet, and its claque has dutifully delivered its standing O. Atta boy, Chrysler, tell those regulators to stick it!

As usual, those opining about Chrysler’s public resistance to recalling the 1993 - 2004 Jeep Grand Cherokees and 2002 -2007 Libertys for defective fuel tanks haven’t a bloody clue. And so, as usual, The Safety Record Blog will put Chrysler’s shot across the bow into its proper context.

To recap: In November 2009, the Center for Auto Safety petitioned the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration to open an investigation into fuel-fed fires plaguing the early model Jeep Grand Cherokees, alleging that the plastic fuel tank's placement behind the rear axle and below the rear bumper, and the lack of adequate shielding made it more vulnerable to rupture or leakage from rear-impacts and in rollovers. According to Fatality Analysis Reporting System (FARS) data, this design resulted in 172 fatal fire crashes with 254 fatalities, CAS said. The agency granted the CAS petition in August 2010, and opened a Preliminary Evaluation. In June 2012, ODI bumped up the investigation to an Engineering Analysis. Two weeks ago, NHTSA announced that it had requested that Chrysler recall the 1993-2004 Jeep Grand Cherokee and 2002 -2007 Liberty and was ready to go to an Initial Decision hearing if Chrysler refused.

So far, Chrysler has refused. Its preliminary defense was laid out in a “White Paper” (see NHTSA Drops Hammer on Chrysler Jeeps) Yes, it was written on virtual white paper. But we expected something a little more detailed than a three-page press release and a chart with writing so tiny, one needs to blow it up 500 percent to read it. Its basic argument is, and has always been, this: The Jeep Grand Cherokee and the Jeep Liberty met the Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standard (FMVSS) 301 fuel tank integrity at the time, and the Jeep Grand Cherokee and Liberty, statistically are not outliers for rear-impact fuel-fed fires. (Chrysler has until next Tuesday to file its official response.) 

Sounds reasonable, no? Let’s unpack it.

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