Georgia trial renews demand by safety advocates for recall of older Jeeps

Fiat Chrysler moved the fuel tank for its 2005 Jeep Grand Cherokee away from a so-called crush zone behind the rear bumper to a more secure spot near the middle of the vehicle.

A decade later, the company hasn't supplied documents explaining why the change was made, even though it took years of engineering work and decision-making, according to the lawyer for a family suing over their 4-year-old son's death.

The answer may become crucial in a trial under way in Bainbridge, Georgia, where the boy's parents blame the old design for his being burned alive in his booster seat in a 1999 Grand Cherokee after it was rear-ended.

The family's lawyer, James Butler, alleged in court that Fiat Chrysler destroyed a database of engineering documents about the change to conceal the reason it was made: to fix a safety flaw that the carmaker denies ever existed.

"Chrysler says it has no documents," though "it's a major design change," Butler told jurors Tuesday in opening statements. "The obvious reason is that Chrysler knew the very thing it denies to you in this courtroom."

Michael Palese, a spokesman for Fiat Chrysler in the U.S., said the tank was shifted as part of a redesign that involved moving the spare tire. The changes added enough space so the fuel tank could be near the middle of the vehicle, Palese said by e-mail.

The redesign wasn't done because the tank's placement was considered unsafe, he said. Butler said in an interview that Chrysler hasn't provided witnesses to testify under oath about its account of the redesign.

Accusation denied

Palese said Fiat denies allegations of document destruction and that lawyers for the company will respond later in the trial. The case may go to the jury in about a week.

The boy died "in a severe crash caused by a reckless pickup truck driver," Palese said. "The 1999 Jeep Grand Cherokee meets or exceeds all applicable federal safety standards."

The pickup driver was sentenced to eight years in prison after pleading guilty to vehicular homicide and is a defendant in the suit. The trial over the death of Remington Walden in 2012 is renewing demand by safety advocates for a massive recall of older Jeeps.

The company denies wrongdoing. Fiat Chrysler Automobiles NV, owner of the Jeep brand, says the death and others like it resulted from the type of commonplace high-speed crashes that are bound to cause serious damage regardless of the tanks' location.

Government probe

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration included the 1999 Grand Cherokee model in an investigation of Jeeps and determined in 2013 that it was safe. Two other models were recalled. By that time 75 people had died in accidents involving Jeep fuel tank fies since 1998, according to government data.

Jon Olson, a former Ford fuel systems engineer hired by Chrysler to be an expert witness in the trial, said in a deposition that a new vehicle design -- one that has a new location for a fuel tank -- would generate an extensive paper trail.

Yet when Chrysler was asked for documents about the change as part of an exchange of evidence in the Walden lawsuit, the company told Butler it looked for the documents and couldn't find anything, the lawyer said. None of the executives who gave depositions under oath could give details when asked by Butler why the fuel tank was moved, or who made the decision, the lawyer alleged.

Necessary documents?

"Isn't it true there would have to be documents to say who was involved in that decision?" Butler asked Philip Cousino, the chief engineer for the 2005 Grand Cherokee, in a recorded deposition played Wednesday in court.

"It's probably true," said Cousino, who retired in 2008. "There's probably a set number of years they would keep their documents. I don't know what it is for Chrysler."

"Do you deny the midship gas tank location is safer than putting a gas tank 11 inches from the back of a car?" Butler asked.

"I can't answer that because I'd have to do some analysis," Cousino said.

He said the placement of the tank in older models had to be safe because it met federal safety standards. Chrysler said standards then included a rule that fuel tanks survive a crash of 30 miles an hour, later increased to 50 miles per hour.

In preparation for the tougher rule, Chrysler crash-tested a 1999 Grand Cherokee, the model in which the Waldens' son died, with a device striking it from behind at 50 miles a hour.

Steel protection

The threat to the fuel tank was so obvious that Chrysler surrounded the tank with steel protection for the test, the boy's parents alleged in court papers.

"Did Chrysler ever warn people that, in order to have any chance of surviving a 50-mile-per-hour rear impact, the gas tank had to have a steel cage around the gas tank location and a bumper beam installed," Butler asked Chrysler engineer Michael Teets in a video deposition played Wednesday.

"We don't warn the public unless there's a defect of some sort," Teets said. The vehicle that struck the car as the boy's aunt was about to turn left might have been going as fast as 50 miles an hour, Butler said.

The rear-mounted fuel tank design was "pretty common" for sport utility vehicles and others when it was used in the Jeep Grand Cherokee, Chrysler's lawyer Brian Bell said in his opening statements.

A list of such vehicles showed jurors included the 1995 Honda Passport, the 1996 Chevrolet Blazer and the 2000 Ford Mustang.

"This fuel tank, in its time, was a very secure tank," Bell said. "This is the type of crash that people get killed in all the time" because it involved a high speed.

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