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From Products Liability Law Daily, June 5, 2013

Chrysler Rebuffs NHTSA’s Recall of Jeep Grand Cherokee and Liberty Vehicles

By Joseph Bichl

Chrysler Group rejected a request by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) that the automaker recall 2.7 million Jeep Grand Cherokee and Liberty vehicles because of fuel tank defects (NHTSA Recall Letter to Chrysler, June 3, 2013; Chrysler White Paper on NHTSA’s Recall Request).

In a letter sent to Chrysler, NHTSA asserted that the placement and stability of the fuel tanks in 1993-2004 Jeep Grand Cherokee and 2002-2007 Jeep Liberty vehicles constituted serious design and performance flaws. Chrysler argued that its models were safe and met or exceeded all applicable federal motor vehicle safety standards. In addition, Chrysler maintained that NHTSA was holding Chrysler to a new standard for fuel tank integrity that “does not exist now and did not exist when the Jeep vehicles were manufactured.”

NHTSA’s findings. After three years of analysis, NHTSA determined that the fuel tanks installed on the Jeep vehicles were liable to fail when the vehicles were struck from the rear—failures that have resulted in fuel leaks, fires, and deaths. In addition, the placement of the fuel tanks behind the axle put the vehicles in a vulnerable position in rear-end collisions. Taken together, NHTSA decided that the defects clearly created an unreasonable safety hazard, citing in its letter that there have been at least 32 fatal rear-impact fire crashes involving Grand Cherokees resulting in 44 deaths and at least five accidents involving the Liberty that have resulted in seven deaths.

Chrysler rejects analysis. Chrysler disagreed with the agency’s letter, stating that there were no defects in either the vehicles’ design or manufacture. The company claimed that the vehicles exceeded the requirements of Federal Motor Vehicle Standard No. 301, “Fuel System Integrity,” which is considered the gold standard by which fuel systems are evaluated.

For the vast majority of the incidents cited by NHTSA, the crash force was far in excess of the rear crash fuel leak requirements in place at that time, and even more than the requirements currently in place, Chrysler argued, stating that “seventy-eight percent of Grand Cherokee incidents involved impacts with crash energy that exceeded today’s rear impact fuel system integrity standard requirement.”

For its part, NHTSA agreed that the Grand Cherokee and Liberty vehicles complied with the requirements of the fuel integrity standard that were applicable when the vehicles were manufactured. However, the existence of a standard “does not require NHTSA to ignore deadly problems,” the agency said.

Chrysler also argued that the incidents cited by NHTSA were extremely rare and represented only a small fraction of the total number of fatal crashes. The company suggested that, after reviewing over 30 years’ worth of field data, the overwhelming majority of traffic fatalities occurred in frontal, side, and rollover incidents. The company made the claim that, when taken as a whole, its Jeep vehicles were among the safest vehicles of their era. Taking it even a step further, Chrysler stated that its research revealed that the incidents at the focus of the recall request “occur less than one time for every million years of vehicle operation.”

At an impasse. NHTSA’s recommendation that Chrysler conduct a safety recall did not constitute a formal finding or conclusion by the agency. NHTSA said in its letter that if Chrysler chose not to conduct the requested recall, it would have to provide the agency with a full explanation of its decision, including any additional analysis of the problem beyond Chrysler’s past presentations. The next step for the agency would be to proceed to an initial decision that these vehicles contained a safety-related defect. In such a case, the decision would be accompanied by the publication of a Federal Register notice describing the alleged defects, the safety consequences of these defects, the agency’s investigation, and the scheduling of a public meeting.

Companies: Chrysler Group

MainStory: TopStory ProductRecallsNews NHTSANews MotorVehiclesNews

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