Chrysler and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration recently faced off in a recall fight over the safety of the millions of Jeep Grand Cherokees and Jeep Libertys. The episode began in May when the NHTSA and several consumer safety groups called on Chrysler to voluntarily issue a recall for 2.7 million Jeeps built from the late 1990s to the mid 2000s. The problem, according to the NHTSA, was the defective design of the Jeeps which placed the fuel tank behind the rear axle, a position that left the tank incredibly vulnerable to explosion in the event of a rear-impact collision.
Chrysler initially refused to issue the voluntary recall and a battle ensued. Rather than admit the hundreds of reported vehicle fires and dozens of deaths (the NHTSA says it has verified at least 51 fatalities related to the issue) justified a recall, Chrysler aggressively fought back. The company issued a letter outlining all the ways it believed the NHTSA was wrong. It said its products were perfectly safe and in line with industry standards. The NHTSA then responded, giving Chrysler a deadline of June 18th to either issue a recall or face a legal challenge by the safety agency to force a recall.
To everyone's surprise, Chrysler's brinksmanship with the NHTSA went down to the last possible moment, issuing a statement on the 18th agreeing to issue a recall, though not for the 2.7 million Jeeps initially requested by the agency. Instead, Chrysler was rewarded for its obstruction and the NHTSA agreed to allow the company to recall only 1.5 million Jeeps, saving the company tens if not hundreds of millions of dollars. Additionally, Chrysler was able to get the NHTSA to agree to drop the requirement that the recall be labeled as for a "defective" product, a semantic change that is meant to help with legal liability.
Auto safety experts have come out and said that they fear the episode will represent a turning point in how automakers respond to such recalls in the future. For years car companies comply immediately to recall requests, fearing that public outcry will harm their brand. Wanting to avoid bad press, companies have been quick to work with the government to assure consumers their vehicles are safe. Chrysler took a gamble by risking bad press but ended up winning millions in concessions. By taking such an aggressive stance with the NHTSA, the car company gained significant leverage.
The fear is that the episode will serve as a lesson for other companies about how taking such a tough position will end up paying off for the brand. While it's good news that Chrysler decided to issue a recall at all, potentially saving hundreds more lives, it's unfortunate that the terms of the agreement with the government were so tilted in the car company's favor. Hopefully, the episode does not set a dangerous precedent for other car companies.
If you or someone you know has been injured because of a company's failure to provide a safe product, you need the help of a St. Louis products liability attorney experienced and ready to help protect your rights and recover damages for your injury. Contact products liability attorney Ben Sansone today for a free initial consultation at (314) 863-0500.
Source: "Chrysler recall battle strikes fear in Jeep owners", by The Associated Press, published at Newsday.com.