The industry faces a potential dilemma now that the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has called for Chrysler to recall as many as 2.7 million Jeep Grand Cherokee and Liberty SUVs to address safety problems NHTSA says can cause fires in rear-end accidents.
Chrysler rejected the request, saying the vehicles are safe, pose no more risk than other, similar vehicles and that the Jeeps met all applicable Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards at the time they were manufactured.
All of that may be true. But if Chrysler does not waver, this dispute likely will result in protracted legal proceedings because it seems to test the cherished American principle that government cannot impose regulation ex post facto -- that is, government cannot hold a party accountable for something that was done legally in the past but has since been outlawed.
Should Chrysler lose in court, it could set a significant precedent if NHTSA can force automakers to recall and modify vehicles that were legal when manufactured.
Chrysler already seems to be losing in the court of public opinion. That's because Clarence Ditlow and the Center for Auto Safety, which for years have been pushing for a recall of Jeep Grand Cherokees, scored a quick publicity victory. Within hours of the NHTSA letter to Chrysler being disclosed, newscasters were showing pictures from NHTSA's letter of burned-out Jeeps and some commentators were comparing the Jeep fires to the Ford Pinto fires of the late 1970s and early 1980s.
The Pinto fires resulted in a highly publicized trial in which a grand jury in Indiana indicted Ford Motor Co. on three criminal counts of reckless homicide after three local teenage girls died in a burning Pinto. Ford was acquitted in a jury trial.
Chrysler -- and the industry -- might not fare as well.