By John W. Scanlan, J.D.
An award of $40 million in damages to the parents of a child who was burned to death in a rear-end accident in a 1999 Jeep Grand Cherokee was affirmed by a Georgia appellate court, which also upheld the trial court’s findings that Chrysler had acted with reckless and wanton disregard for human life. Evidence showed that the company knew in 1998 of the safety benefits of placing the gas tank between the front and rear axles and of the risks of placing it in the rear, and had used mid-axle placement in other vehicles, and that the fuel tank would not have ruptured in this accident had it been located there (Chrysler Group, LLC v. Walden , November 15, 2016, McFadden, C.).
The child’s parents brought suit against Chrysler Group, LLC, alleging that the company had acted with reckless and wanton disregard in the design or sale of the Jeep and breached a duty to warn of its hazards. A jury found for the parents and awarded them $120 million for wrongful death and $30 million for pain and suffering, and determined that Chrysler was 99 percent at fault [see Products Liability Law Daily’s April 8, 2015 analysis]. The trial court denied Chrysler’s motion for a new trial, conditioned on the parents’ accepting a remittur of the awards to $30 million for wrongful death and $10 million for pain and suffering [see Products Liability Law Daily’s July 29, 2015 analysis]. They agreed, and Chrysler appealed.
Reckless or wanton disregard. The appellate court found no error in the trial court’s findings that Chrysler had acted with reckless or wanton disregard for human life in the design or sale of the Jeep. Although Chrysler argued that the design of its fuel tank fully complied with Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards, compliance is a factor for the jury to consider but does not make the company immune from liability. Similarly, the fact that there were 27 million vehicles on the road with rear-mounted fuel tanks indicated compliance with industry standards but did not prevent them from being held liable. Chrysler asserted that prior to the manufacture of the Grand Cherokee at issue, it had knowledge of only one rear-end accident involving a Jeep vehicle with a rear-mounted fuel tank from which fuel escaped. However, a Chrysler employee who managed the Grand Cherokee crash test program testified that in 1998, Chrysler knew that the gas tank in the 1999 Grand Cherokee was vulnerable and would be crushed in a rear impact. Other evidence showed that Chrysler knew of the benefits of placing the gas tank between the front and rear axles ("midship") and had done so in other vehicles, and that if the gas tank in the present vehicle had been located there, it would not have ruptured in this accident. From this evidence, a jury could conclude that Chrysler should have realized that there was a strong probability that harm would result.
Duty to warn. The appellate court agreed with the trial court’s refusal to give a directed verdict to Chrysler on the parents’ failure to warn claims because Chrysler had provided no warning of the dangers presented by a rear-mounted gas tank. Chrysler asserted that the parents did not establish proximate cause because they did not introduce evidence that they would have read a warning if one had been provided, or that the vehicle owner (the child’s grandfather) would have communicated such a warning to them. However, whether the parents had established proximate cause in the absence of any warning was a question for the jury to decide.
Evidence of similar incidents. Evidence of 17 other rear-end accidents involving Jeep vehicles with the gas tank behind the rear axle in which fuel escaped from the gas tank was properly admitted by the trial court because these incidents shared a common design, common defect, and common causation with this accident. Even though 13 of the 17 accidents involved Jeep models with different fuel system and structural designs from the 1999 Grand Cherokee, each of those 13 involved a Jeep SUV with the gas tank in a similar location, NHTSA investigated all of these models in a single defect investigation involving the placement of the fuel tanks, and Chrysler’s chief executive stated that tank-related fires in one model would prompt Chrysler to investigate the others. The parents’ expert testified that this accident and the others all involved a rear impact that resulted in gas leakage, which showed common causation.
The court noted that references to the 1970s-era Ford Pinto were general references and not evidence of specific, discrete accidents, and found that the trial court had not admitted other-incident evidence involving the Pinto.
Chrysler’s statistical experts. The appellate court upheld the exclusion of the testimony and statistical analyses of two experts for Chrysler to show the overall safety of the design of the vehicle compared to the overall safety of alternative designs. This evidence was excluded not only for lack of substantial similarity, but also for lack of relevance because it involved the overall safety of vehicles whereas the parents had challenged only the safety of the design of the fuel system in rear impacts. Furthermore, the probative value of their evidence was found by the trial court to be outweighed by prejudice and confusion from their testimony, and neither expert satisfied Georgia requirements for the admission of expert testimony. Chrysler did not challenge any of these other bases for exclusion.
NHTSA recall request letter and meeting. It was not erroneous for the trial court to have admitted evidence of NHTSA’s Office of Defect Investigation’s (ODI) recall request letter finding evidence of a defect, or evidence of a 2013 meeting involving Chrysler’s chief executive, the head of NHTSA, and U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood. Chrysler argued that the letter was inadmissible hearsay, but it was offered in part to cast doubt on the credibility of a subsequent ODI document closing the NHTSA investigation, which Chrysler had sought to offer, by showing that the meeting led ODI to change its opinion regarding the defect. Furthermore, the letter was not untrustworthy pursuant to FRE Rule 803 because ODI had conducted a years-long investigation and had received substantial data from Chrysler, from the fatality analysis reporting system (FARS), and from NHTSA complaint databases, and at least some of the findings were not labeled as tentative.
Damages. The jury’s damages awards were not shown to have been the result of an improper motive and did not "shock the moral sense." The parents provided evidence that showed that the child was alive and conscious and may have lived up to a minute with the flames in contact with his body, and that there is no more painful way to die. While Chrysler argued that the trial court should have remitted the damages to be more in line with prior awards in Georgia, no two cases are precisely alike, and Chrysler did not meet its "heavy" burden of showing the trial court manifestly abused its discretion in its remittur.
The case is No. A16A1285.
Attorneys: Terry Otho Brantley (Swift, Currie, McGhee & Hiers, LLP) for Chrysler Group, LLC. Karsten Bicknese (Seacrest, Karesh, Tate & Bicknese, LLP) for James Bryan Walden.
Companies: Chrysler Group, LLC
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