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Dead boy's family win $150 million payout over exploding Jeep

But parent company Fiat Chrysler still insists the vehicles aren’t defective.

A burned-out Jeep in Chicago
A burned-out Jeep in Chicago

A JURY IN Georgia has awarded $150 million (€138 million) to the family of a 4-year-old boy killed when a Jeep Grand Cherokee exploded into flames three years ago after being rear-ended.

The jury said Chrysler, the maker of Jeeps, must pay nearly the full amount after finding the company acted with reckless disregard for human life in selling the family of Remington “Remi” Walden a 1999 Jeep with a gas tank mounted behind the rear axle.

Walden, of Bainbridge, Georgia, was killed when the Jeep driven by his aunt was hit from behind by a pickup truck in March 2012. The fuel tank leaked, engulfing the Jeep in flames and killing the boy.

The verdict comes nearly two years after Chrysler compromised with a federal safety agency and agreed to a scaled-down recall of some older-model Jeeps with the rear-mounted tanks.

The tanks have little structure to protect them if struck from behind, making them susceptible to punctures and fires. Federal documents show that at least 75 people have died in post-crash fires because of the rear-mounted fuel tanks.

The marque is now part of the Fiat Chrysler group after the Italian company took a controlling stake in the US brand ahead of a full merger last year. The combined entity is now headquartered in London.

Financial Markets Wall Street Fiat Chrysler Stock Fiat Chrysler Automobiles starts trading in New York last year Source: AP/Press Association Images

The jury ruled after a nine day trial that Chrysler was 99% at fault for the crash and the pickup driver was 1% at fault. Jurors also determined that Chrysler failed to warn the family of the hazards of driving the Jeep.

They ruled that the Waldens should get $30 million for Remi’s pain and suffering and $120 million for the full value of his life, according to a verdict form.

Vehicles ‘not defective’

Mike Palese, spokesman for Chrysler parent company FCA US, said the company is disappointed with the verdict and would appeal.

Chrysler, he said, was prevented from presenting data submitted to federal safety regulators showing that the vehicles did not pose an unreasonable safety risk.

The vehicles are not defective,” Palese said.

But attorney Jim Butler argued during the trial that Remi’s death resulted from the fire because of the gas tank’s poor position. The child was on his way to a tennis lesson when the SUV was struck from behind.

Numerous witnesses saw Remi struggling to escape and heard him screaming for help,” the family’s lawsuit alleged.

The lawsuit alleged that Chrysler placed the gas tank in a “crush zone” behind the rear axle and knew the location was dangerous, and that the company failed to protect the gas tank against rupturing.

Jeep Grand Cherokee Mudding A Jeep Grand Cherokee Source: Trenten Kelley Photography

Major crash verdicts

Although the verdict is large, it isn’t the largest judgement ever against an automaker in a personal injury case.

In 1999, for example, a California jury ordered General Motors to pay $4.9 billion to Patricia Anderson and Jo Tigner after their Chevrolet Malibu was rear-ended and burst into flames.

In that case, four children in the back seat were severely injured. The amount was reduced on appeal to $1.2 billion.

Carl Tobias, a professor at the University of Richmond law school, said it will be difficult for Chrysler to overturn a jury verdict, but an appeals court might reduce the amount.

He questioned Chrysler’s decision to take the case to trial because of the horrific nature of the crash.

Tobias said the Walden verdict is likely to lead others to sue the company or to speed along cases that are already in the system.

Jeep at Night A late-model Jeep Source: Adrian Sclafani

Call for new investigation

Chrysler has long contended that the Jeeps were no more dangerous than comparable SUVs built at the time.

It used that argument to convince the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration in 2013 to allow it to recall 1.56 million Jeeps after the government agency initially recommended that 2.7 million be repaired.

Under the recall, Chrysler agreed to install trailer hitches in the rear as an extra layer of protection.

Safety advocates have called the size of the recall and the fix inadequate. Yesterday, Clarence Ditlow, the head of the Center for Auto Safety, called on the government to reopen its investigation against Chrysler.

- Additional reporting Peter Bodkin

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