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Chrysler Refuses Recall After NHTSA Identifies Safety Defect

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Earlier this week, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) identified a safety-related defect in the fuel tank location in 1993-2004 Jeep Grand Cherokee and 2002-2007 Jeep Liberty SUVs, dubbed a "Pinto for Soccer Moms". NHTSA's investigation found numerous fire-related deaths and injuries as well as other fires that did not result in deaths and fuel leaks in rear impacts. Because of the identified defects, NHTSA's Office of Defect Investigation (ODI) has asked Chrysler to initiate a safety recall of those vehicle. In a surprising move, Chrysler has refused.

On June 3, 2013, NHTSA sent a 13-page letter to Chrysler that outlined the agency's concerns and identified the safety defect.

ODI's analysis revealed that the MY 2002-2007 Jeep Liberty and the MY 1993-2004 Grand Cherokee performed poorly when compared to all but one of the MY 1993-2007 peer vehicles, particularly in terms of fatalities, fires without fatalities, and fuel leaks in rear end impacts and crashes.

– NHTSA letter, p. 2.

It turns out that these SUVs were designed with the fuel tanks behind the rear axle – a design similar to that found in the 1970s era Ford Pinto.

NHTSA's letter to Chrysler outlined this background and quoted from Chrysler's own engineering study that found fuel tank locations forward of the rear axle "provides the protection of all the structure behind the rear wheels – as well as the rear wheels themselves – to protect the tank from being damaged in a collision."

NHTSA Recall Letter to Chrysler - p. 2

By the 2002-2003 model years, only four vehicles sold in the United States had fuel tanks based on the "Pinto design" and located behind the rear axle. Those vehicles were the Ford Mustang, Ford Grand Marquis/Crown Victoria/Lincoln Town Car, Jeep Liberty, and Jeep Grand Cherokee.

As part of its refusal to recall these vehicles, Chrysler has noted that each complied with federal minimum standard for fuel system integrity – FMVSS No. 301. I see this argument from automakers in product defect lawsuits every time. The automaker claims that because the vehicle complied with the federal minimum standard, it cannot be liable for a safety-related defect. Well, every car on the road – including the Ford Pinto, GM pickups with side-saddle gas tanks, and Ford Explorers with Firestone tires – complied with federal minimum standards. NHTSA has repeatedly explained that the federal minimum standards are a floor for safety, not the ceiling, and compliance with the standards is not a defense to a product defect claim and certainly does not mean the design chosen by the manufacturer is "safe".

NHTSA Recall Letter - p. 4

NHTSA's position that compliance with federal minimum standards does not equal a defect-free design dates back to at least 1981:

NHTSA's letter went on to state that the minimum standards do "not require that manufacturers limit their chosen design to the performance levels specified in the standard" as the "performance standards are minimum, not maximum ones. Manufacturers are free to select designs which exceed those in the safety standards."

Similarly, the letter noted that "compliance with a Federal motor vehicle safety standard does not presumptively mean that the design chosen by the manufacturer is safe."

NHTSA Letter (1961), p. 2

NHTSA has notified Chrysler that if it does not initiate a voluntary recall of these vehicles, "NHTSA may proceed to an Initial Decision that these vehicles contain a safety-related defect." Chrysler must provide NHTSA's Office of Defect Investigation a full explanation of its decision to not recall these vehicles including any additional analysis of the problem beyond Chrysler's previous presentations to NHTSA. Chrysler has until June 18, 2013 to provide such information to NHTSA.

What do you think about Chrysler's refusal to recall these vehicles?

Update [2:14 EDT]

CNN/Money has published a follow-up article to the one listed below that contains the following video:

[Learn more about Fuel Fed Fire Dangers]

Read More:

© Copyright 2013 Brett A. Emison

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