Parents of child killed in post-crash fire sue Chrysler

Published 3:33 pm Monday, July 9, 2012

Bryan and Lindsay Walden of Bainbridge flied suit against Chrysler in the Superior Court of Decatur County on Monday, holding the company responsible for the death of their 4-year-old son, Remington “Remi” Walden. Remi was killed by a post-collision fuel-fed fire on March 6, 2012, in Bainbridge.

According to a press release from the Butler Wooten & Fryhofer law firm of Atlanta and Columbus, Ga., which is representing the Waldens, Remi’s aunt Emily Newsome was driving him to tennis lessons in his grandfather’s 1999 Jeep Cherokee when the vehicle was struck in the rear by a Dodge Dakota driven by Bainbridge resident, Bryan Harrell.

Remi’s only injury from the collision itself was a fractured bone in his leg. However, the Jeep Cherokee had a fuel tank located just inside the rear bumper of the car, which was unprotected from rear impact. The collision ruptured the fuel tank, causing a fire that engulfed the vehicle in flames. Witnesses were unable to rescue Remi, who died in the fire.

Representing the Waldens, from Butler Wooten & Fryhofer, are James E. Butler Jr., Leigh Martin May and Jeb Butler. May is a 1989 graduate of Bainbridge High School, whose mother and stepfather live in Bainbridge. Joining them on the case is Bainbridge lawyer George Floyd.

Butler Wooten & Fryhofer has previously handled three cases involving post-collision fires in Chrysler vehicles with rear fuel tanks. One of those cases involved a Jeep Cherokee that was hit in the rear, resulting in a gas tank rupture, fire and the death of a family of three.

“Automakers have known for at least 40 years — since the Pinto explosions — that putting gas tanks in the rear unprotected by the vehicle’s frame rails poses a grave danger to occupants,” said lead counsel James E. Butler Jr. “Yet some of them kept doing it.”

According to Butler, Chrysler designed its Jeep Cherokee, Grand Cherokee and Liberty cars with a fuel tank that is located behind the rear axle, adjacent to the rear bumper, and hanging down below the rear bumper.

“That is in a known crash zone,” he said. “It’s the very place where it is most vulnerable to one of the most common kinds of collisions — rear impact.”
The Waldens’ lawsuit claims Chrysler knew of the dangers and knew that rear impacts were forseeable, but failed to protect consumers from those known dangers — even despite Chrysler’s actual knowledge of prior accidents, fires and deaths caused by those fires.

Chrysler has never recalled any of the three vehicles, nor warned any citizens of the known danger, Butler stated.

On June 14, 2012, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) announced that it was upgrading its pending investigation of those Chrysler vehicles to cover all 5 million such vehicles on the road. The NHTSA investigation is called an “engineering analysis,” and NHTSA plans to investigate whether there is an unreasonable risk to safety, which NHTSA can — and will — do anything about.

“NHTSA’s reputation for actually doing something about such obvious dangers is very poor,” Butler said. “The main cause of improvements in automotive safety have been jury verdicts. Unfortunately, juries can deal with the dangers only after someone has tragically died or been maimed.”

NHTSA poses to its website on June 12, 2012: “NHTSA’s assessment of the data collected during preliminary evaluation indicates that rear-impact-related tank failures and vehicle fires are more prevalent in the Jeep Grand Cherokee than in the non-Jeep peer vehicles. In addition, the agency’s analysis of its … data for the peer vehicles and three Jeep models shows a higher incidence of rear-impact, fatal fire crashes for the Jeep products.”

NHTSA is specifically investigating these Chrysler vehicles: 1993-2004 Grand Cherokee, 1993-2001 Cherokee and 2002-2007 Liberty. Notably, Chrysler has finally relocated the fuel tank in its newer model Jeep Grand Cherokee, Jeep Cherokee and Jeep Liberty cars, putting the fuel tank ahead of the rear axle, where it is protected from rear impact.

Also being sued is Harrell, the driver of the vehicle that hit the Grand Cherokee in the rear.

“Harrell caused the wreck, but Chrysler caused this child’s tragic death,” May said. “Automakers in such cases always try to blame the striking driver, even when the evidence is clear the defect in the vehicle caused the real injury — not the collision.

“The real criminal misconduct here is Chrysler’s conduct in putting these defective vehicles on the road. Chrysler has known for decades about this problem, but it has concealed the dangers from families like the Waldens.
“The Waldens hope that taking action against Chrysler will make other citizens and parents aware of the danger, so they can avoid a similar tragedy.”

Chrysler spokesman Mike Palese said that the company’s vehicles have an excellent safety record.

“Chrysler Group’s sympathies are with the Walden family and friends for their tragic loss,” he said. “The 1999 Jeep Grand Cherokee meets or exceeds all applicable federal safety standards and has an excellent safety record.”

Palese said that the Chrysler Group has studied publicly available data involving more than 21,000 rear impacts in vehicles similar to the Chrysler vehicles.

“It is apparent from this study that rear impacts resulting in a fire are extremely rare,” he said. “Rear impacts resulting in a fire occur no more often in 1993-2004 Jeep Grand Cherokee vehicles than in peer vehicles, and the 1993-2004 Jeep Grand Cherokee vehicles are at no greater risk of exposure to fire in rear end collisions than peer vehicles.

“Accordingly, Chrysler Group has concluded that 1993-2004 Jeep Grand Cherokee vehicles are neither defective nor do their fuel systems pose an unreasonable risk to motor vehicle safety in rear impact collisions.”