DETROIT – An auto safety advocate is calling on the government to reopen an investigation of rear-crash fires in older Jeep SUVs after finding at least 11 more deaths since the vehicles were recalled.
The deaths show that the recall repair — installing a trailer hitch to protect gas tanks in low-speed crashes — hasn’t been effective, said Clarence Ditlow, head of the non-profit Center for Auto Safety.
He is calling on the government to investigate, saying the Jeeps are unsafe and a remedy should be developed that saves lives.
“As far as Fiat Chrysler is concerned, Jeeps can continue to crash and burn until they are all off the road,” Ditlow wrote in a letter to Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx dated Thursday.
It’s been almost three years since Fiat Chrysler, which makes Jeeps, began recalling 1.56 million SUVs with plastic gas tanks that are mounted behind the rear axle and can rupture in a crash, spilling gasoline.
Ditlow said he found a total of 19 fire deaths in older Jeeps in a fatal accident database maintained by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. Eleven were in Jeeps that had been recalled, with eight more in SUVs not included in the recall, he said.
The deaths since the June 2013 recall bring the number of people killed in fiery crashes involving the Jeeps to as many as 86. Before the recall, NHTSA counted 75 deaths. The recalled vehicles include 1993-1998 Grand Cherokees and 2002 to 2007 Libertys.
NHTSA spokesman Gordon Trowbridge said Friday that he had just seen the letter and couldn’t comment. The agency has fined Fiat Chrysler a total of $175 million in the past two years for moving too slowly on recalls or failing to report safety defects and deaths.
Fiat Chrysler maintains that the Jeeps are just as safe as comparable vehicles from the same era when weighted by years of vehicle operation. Of the 100 car and SUV models from that era with the highest rear-crash fire death rates, the Liberty was lower than 24 models and the Grand Cherokee was lower than 60, according to FCA’s analysis of NHTSA data through 2010.
“These are tragic accidents caused by factors such as excessive speed and driver distraction,” FCA said in a statement.
Among the 11 deaths were Edward Dearden, 57 and Theresa Dearden, 54, of York, Pennsylvania, who were killed in May 2014 when their 1995 Grand Cherokee was hit from behind in a pileup on Interstate 78 near Philadelphia.
In January, the Deardens’ son, David, sued Fiat Chrysler and other defendants, alleging that the Jeep was unsafe “due to its propensity to burst into flames after rear impacts.” The lawsuit also says the Deardens’ Jeep was part of the recall, but Fiat Chrysler didn’t inform them of it before the crash. They bought the vehicle used from another person.
The family’s lawyer, Robert Mongeluzzi, said the company fought the recall after it emerged from bankruptcy protection in 2009 and that all the Jeeps should be recalled and replaced.
Last year, a Georgia jury awarded $150 million to the family of a 4-year-old Remington Walden, who died in fire involving a 1999 Grand Cherokee. A judge reduced the award to $40 million and Fiat Chrysler has appealed. The Walden family’s Jeep and many other Grand Cherokees with rear-mounted tanks were not included in the recall.
Fiat Chrysler, after sparring with NHTSA over the pace of recall repairs, agreed last July to make trade-in offers to the Jeep owners or pay them to have the hitches installed. Still, only 35 per cent of the recalled Jeeps had been repaired by the end of 2015. Another 545,000 owners can’t be reached, or their vehicles have been scrapped, according to a report filed with the government by Fiat Chrysler. The company has made 15.3 million attempts to reach owners by mail, telephone calls or email, spokesman Eric Mayne said.
Fiat Chrysler has agreed to offer $1,000 above market value trade-in prices on a new vehicle to owners of 1993 to 1998 Grand Cherokees. Owners of both the recalled Liberty and Grand Cherokee SUVs would get $100 gift cards to have their vehicles repaired.