— The Kayla White Jeep Liberty lawsuit will continue after a judge ruled against Fiat Chrysler's motion to dismiss the suit that alleges the location of the Jeep fuel tank caused White's death.
The lawsuit was filed by the family of 23-year-old Michigan resident Kayla White and her unborn son, who were burned to death in November 2014 after White's 2003 Jeep Liberty gas tank ruptured in a rear-end crash.
According to the lawsuit, White's father bought a 2003 Jeep Liberty with a gas tank located behind the rear axle and in 2013 White’s parents gave her the 2003 Jeep Liberty. Then in 2014, FCA issued a recall notice for 2002-2007 Jeep Liberty SUVs with rear-mounted fuel tanks.
On November 11, 2014, the pregnant White was driving to work in the Jeep when she was forced to slow down due to heavy traffic. Her Jeep was struck from behind by a car driven by Clarence Heath, who failed to brake in time. White’s Jeep was pushed into the car in front of her which in turn was pushed into another vehicle.
The front bumper of Heath’s car did a “nosedive” due to Heath’s heavy braking effort just before impact, which caused the front of the car to go under the Jeep’s rear bumper. The front of the car slammed into the fuel tank and flipped the Jeep over to rest on the driver's side, pinning the driver-side door shut. The rear hatch of the Jeep also popped open from the impact.
The lawsuit alleges White wasn't seriously injured by the collision until the Jeep gas tank broke open and started leaking gas that quickly ignited. Kayla White was unable to escape the Jeep due to the rollover pinning the driver-side door shut. The flames spread into the hatch while White was trying to open the passenger-side door.
It was determined White and her unborn child died from burns and smoke inhalation while still trapped inside the Jeep.
White's family filed the product liability lawsuit against the driver of the other vehicle, Clarence Heath (who was sentenced to 10 days in jail for the crash), and FCA US, LLC, also known as Fiat Chrysler, US, LLC.
The 2003 Jeep was manufactured by Chrysler LLC, a company that ceased operating in 2009 after filing for bankruptcy.
The White family says FCA US, LLC, purchased the assets from the “Old Chrysler” under a Master Transaction Agreement (MTA) that was approved by the bankruptcy court, in which FCA agreed to assume responsibility for product liability claims for the Jeep Kayla White was driving.
In early 2009, the “Old Chrysler” entered bankruptcy proceedings which eventually involved a partial takeover of the company by the U.S. government and the sale of most of Chrysler’s assets and operations to Italian automaker, Fiat, SpA. The new entity became Fiat Chrysler, US, LLC, or FCA US, LLC.
FCA filed its motion to dismiss the White lawsuit by claiming the 2003 Jeep Liberty was manufactured by the Old Chrysler, therefore the new FCA US can't be held liable because FCA US did not exist at the time the SUV was designed, manufactured and sold.
The story goes back some years when the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) opened and then expanded an investigation into Jeeps after reports of rear-crash fires.
NHTSA asked Chrysler to recall 2.7 million vehicles saying that fires are more common in Grand Cherokees than in non-Jeep vehicles, but Chrysler claimed its vehicles were safe and refused the government recall request. A few weeks later, the automaker said it would recall about 1.5 million vehicles instead of the 2.7 million requested by NHTSA.
The repair consists of installing a tow hitch to the rear of the Jeeps in an attempt to protect the gas tanks, at least in slow-speed impacts. However, the automaker said the hitches would only provide “incremental improvement in the crash energy management in low- to moderate-speed rear collisions.”
In allowing the lawsuit to continue, the judge ruled the plaintiffs adequately pleaded a claim that FCA (itself, not its predecessor) acted unreasonably in carrying out the voluntary recall of the 2003 Jeep Liberty when it failed or refused promptly to issue a notice after instructed by the federal government to do so.
The judge also said the plaintiffs adequately pleaded that FCA failed to warn drivers of the severity of the risk of fuel fires that could result from a ruptured gas tank in a rear-end collision and failed to direct drivers of the affected Jeep models to park their cars and not drive them until repairs could be performed.
The judge also found the lawsuit plausibly alleges sufficient specific facts to suggest Chrysler was aware of and failed to warn White about the "dangerously defective design of the Jeep Liberty’s fuel tank, which resulted in the escalation of a survivable rear-end collision into a gruesome spectacle" that killed Kayla White and her unborn child.
Although the lawsuit will continue, FCA says the 2003 Jeep Liberty meets or exceeds all federal safety standards and has an excellent safety record.
The Kayla White Jeep Liberty lawsuit was filed in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan, Southern Division.