— A Chrysler Town & Country wrongful death lawsuit is over after an appeals court affirmed a lower court dismissal of the case which alleges defects in the 2008 Chrysler minivan caused the death of the driver.
The case goes back to August 20, 2015, when Robert Maxwell lost his life in a Mississippi crash. His daughter, Jessica Maxwell, and other family members sued Fiat Chrysler for various product liability claims based on an alleged design defect in Robert’s 2008 Chrysler Town & Country minivan.
Robert Maxwell purchased a 2008 Chrysler Town & Country in August 2014. Several months later Chrysler sent two letters to Robert's home to inform him of a recall of his minivan. FCA said there could be problems with the ignition in his 2008 Town & Country.
According to the Chrysler recall:
"The Wireless Ignition Node (WIN) Module on your vehicle may have unintentional movement of the Frequency Operated Button Ignition Key (FOBIK) from the “ON” to the “Accessory” position while driving. This could cause unintended engine shut off and increase the risk of a crash."
However, the court says it "is unclear whether Robert’s minivan ever received the free repair."
On August 20, 2015, as Robert was driving southbound on I-55 near DeSoto County, Mississippi, his minivan crashed into the back of a stationary tractor-trailer, killing him. The evidence shows he was driving normally and had just passed a UPS truck prior to hitting the tractor-trailer.
The 2008 Chrysler Town & Country was towed to a salvage facility, but later Robert’s son-in-law inspected the vehicle and captured video and photographs. The photographs show the ignition was in the Accessory (ACC) position with no key in place, but he testified he found the missing key fob under the driver’s seat.
In August 2018, Robert’s family members filed the lawsuit against FCA by asserting the allegedly defective ignition module and key fob described in the recall notice caused Robert’s minivan to malfunction and crash.
FCA argued there was no evidence Robert’s 2008 minivan had the alleged defect, there was no reasonably safe alternative design and there was no evidence that a defect caused the crash.
FCA produced expert reports which said the ignition and key fob could not have moved to the positions they were found in post-crash while Robert was driving. And that even if they had, there is no way this would have caused the crash because the brakes remained operational.
However, the appeals court points out an expert for Maxwell's family said the key fob “may” have dislodged during the crash or the ignition and fob “may” have malfunctioned while Robert was driving.
The case was appealed to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit after it was dismissed by the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan.
The district court granted Chrysler summary judgment when the judge ruled Robert Maxwell's family "failed to adduce any evidence as to causation or the 'feasible alternative design' requirement."
Appeals Court Ruling
The appeals court went over the original claims against FCA, namely wrongful death and product liability based on defective design and breach of implied warranty of fitness. According to the court, Jessica Maxwell must show the alleged defective design caused harm.
However, the appeals court found Maxwell "failed to adduce any evidence to create a genuine dispute of fact that the alleged defect, the faulty ignition and fob, caused the crash."
Jessica Maxwell primarily points to the testimony of her expert, but the appeals court ruled the expert did not provide any facts from which the "district court could have reasonably inferred that a faulty ignition caused the crash."
According to testimony from her expert, “the key FOB may have moved from the ON position . . . prior to the crash,” but that “it is also scientifically possible that the key FOB may have moved from the ON position . . . as a result of the crash.”
The court ruled the expert offered no conclusions as to the presence of the alleged ignition defect in the Chrysler Town & Country, let alone how it allegedly caused the fatal crash.
And the court also found other arguments don't help the case.
"Apart from photographs taken of the car after the accident, which show that the key fob was out of the ignition but give no clue as to what caused this, Maxwell offers testimony from other drivers who state that Robert had been driving carefully that day. Although this evidence helps eliminate some theories for what caused the crash—i.e., that Robert was driving while intoxicated—it does not affirmatively support the theory that the defect caused the crash instead." — Sixth Circuit
The appeals court then moved on to the feasible alternative design argument.
According to the appeals court, the district court correctly concluded that Maxwell failed to present evidence of a “feasible design alternative” that would have had a reasonable probability of preventing the alleged harm.
But on appeal, Jessica Maxwell argues the "safer alternative design" would simply be a traditional key and ignition set up. She also references the Chrysler Town & Country recall notice which said FCA would replace any defective ignition modules and provide the owner two new wireless key fobs for free.
However, the appeals court found neither of these arguments can save Maxwell’s claims.
"With respect to the traditional key argument, Maxwell adduced no evidence—only argument—that a traditional key-and-ignition design would have been safer than the system in the vehicle. Argument is not evidence, nor is it sufficient to create a dispute of fact at summary judgment." — Sixth Circuit
As for the recall notice argument, the appeals court ruled Maxwell presented no evidence that a safer alternative existed when Robert bought the car.
According to the Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit:
"The facts of this case are tragic. But unfortunately, Maxwell has not set forth evidence sufficient to create a genuine dispute of fact that a defect in the minivan caused the crash that took Robert’s life or that a reasonably safer design would have prevented it."
The case is Maxwell, et al. v. FCA US, LLC, et al.