Any time an automobile accident takes a human life, it’s a tragedy. But given the millions of vehicles on America’s roads, it’s amazing that barely over one person dies for every 100 million miles we drive. It’s not the same in every state, of course; for 2013 the Texas fatality rate was 1.42, while Minnesota’s came in at just 0.68. And, since people buy the same vehicles in every state, the blame for different fatality statistics generally falls on the state’s roads, drivers and speed.
When the worst possible tragedy happens, however, often the only blame families want to place is on whoever built the vehicle in which their loved one died. And for the obvious reason: The auto manufacturers have the most corporate liability insurance and cash on hand.
After all, if it’s the fault of a driver, there are hard limits to their insurance coverage — assuming they even have insurance.
Whose Fault Was the Purchase?
Recently one jury verdict involving an accident caught the nation’s attention; the wreck involved a 1999 Jeep Grand Cherokee, and it led to the death of 4-year-old Remington Walden. Google Street View makes it possible for anyone to visit the accident site, where Old Quincy Road and Hubert Dollar Drive intersect in Bainbridge, Georgia. One can easily see the narrow, two-lane country road with no soft shoulder and, on the east side of Old Quincy Road, the maybe five feet of clearance before the trees and heavy overgrowth begin.
On March 6, 2012, at approximately 3:45 on a clear, dry afternoon, Emily Newsome, Remi’s aunt, slowed down at that intersection to make a left-hand turn and was rear-ended at high speed by 26-year-old Bryan Harrell in his 15-year-old Dodge Dakota. The impact spun Newsome’s Grand Cherokee completely around and off into the ditch on the opposite side of the road. The rear gas tank ruptured and a fire started, which tragically killed 4-year-old Remi. His aunt safely exited the Grand Cherokee.
Mr. Harrell’s Dakota’s momentum carried it off Old Quincy Road to the right and into a tree, totaling that vehicle too. According to the State of Georgia Traffic Crash Report, witnesses claimed that Mr. Harrell was operating his truck in an “erratic, reckless, careless and negligent” manner.
Last November Mr. Harrell entered his plea to Felony Homicide before Judge Wallace Cato and was sentenced to 15 years, with eight to be served in a Georgia prison and the balance on probation. Then, four months later in a different court case, a jury decided that Mr. Harrell was only 1 percent responsible for the accident and fire that killed Remi Walden, while Chrysler was 99 percent responsible.
Shouldn’t that mean that Mr. Harrell’s sentence should be vacated? Of course not. But Chrysler will be out $150 million.
The fault, the jury decided, lay in the fact that the gasoline tank in this generation of the Jeep Grand Cherokee had a poorly designed position at the rear of the vehicle and no protection.
But the jury was not allowed to see all of the facts.
An Unappealing Reality
The possibility of gasoline leaking and catching fire has been problematic since the earliest days of the automobile. Gasoline is a Class I, Group D Hazardous Material and always has been. And if one slams into a full gasoline tank and ruptures it, the fuel can vaporize, and is then quite capable of igniting. Over the years we’ve seen this problem recur in the drop tanks used in the 1960s Mustangs, the Ford Pinto, GM truck sidesaddle tanks and most recently in the Ford Crown Victoria Police Interceptors.
In many ways this recent court case shares details with the 1994 GM sidesaddle gas tanks case, which also came to national attention in a Georgia court. That case involved the family of Shannon Moseley, who was struck by David Gerard Ruprecht, a drunk driver who had run a stop light at high speed, slammed into the side of Moseley’s 1985 Silverado truck, ruptured the fuel tanks and thus caused the fire that killed the teen. The jury first ruled against General Motors, awarding the Moseley family over $100 million. Then as now in the Walden Jeep case, the argument was that GM knew that the Silverado’s gasoline tanks were in an unsafe position.
Of course, then came the infamous Dateline NBC segment on GM’s sidesaddle gas tanks, which literally blew up in the faces of network journalists. Not just because NBC added igniters to its video crashes into the Silverado, thereby guaranteeing a spectacular fire, but also because NHTSA’s records would later come to light and show that the Silverado and its gas tanks were no more dangerous than many other vehicles of that period.
Which is why most don’t know that a Georgia Appeals Court threw out that $105 million jury verdict against GM in 1994. (The family settled with GM for an undisclosed amount the next year.) Yet, as it turns out, Georgia law still prevented Chrysler from showing a jury the results of 20 years’ worth of data submitted to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration during its three-year investigation, which led to the agency’s concluding that this generation of the Grand Cherokee did not pose an unreasonable risk.
Surprisingly, the media has covered this Jeep case without ever realizing its similarities to that of Shannon Moseley. Both were in Georgia, both involved the claim of poorly placed and unprotected gasoline tanks that were prone to leak in accidents, leading to fire and death.
And in both cases, Georgia juries were not allowed to see the government data showing that the primary complaint of corporate negligence was not valid.
Strong Lawyer Lobby?
None of this takes away the pain of Remi’s family and the needless tragedy of it all. But there is one last thing to consider that so far everyone has overlooked. And that is how Remi could have survived that accident if it had happened 20 years ago. Remember, his aunt Emily did extricate herself from the Jeep, but couldn’t get to her nephew in his child seat in the second row due to the fire. (One of the witnesses also claimed they tried to get to the young man, but couldn’t.)
And that brings up why we put children in their own seats and in the second row of seats in any vehicle. Why do we do that? Well, it’s right there on the warning label on the driver’s side visor of your car.
Twenty-five years ago, when airbags started making their appearance in larger numbers, just as automakers had previously and desperately warned NHTSA, they were too powerful and could injure or kill short people or children. Which is precisely what started happening. But, rather than admit that the car companies had been right and they, specifically ex-NHTSA head Joan Claybrook, wrong, warning labels were added demanding drivers no longer place car seats and kids in the front seat of their vehicles. Everybody forgets that kids were moved to the back seat because airbags were killing them in the front seat. But in this case, had Remi Waldon been in his child seat up front, his aunt could have easily gotten him out of that Jeep when she exited it.
I hate writing about these cases; every single one is a family tragedy. Unlike most, I don’t believe in tort reform, because it stops the legitimately aggrieved from getting a fair settlement in court. But we confuse tort reform with the promise of ending frivolous lawsuits – which, tort reform can never do.
The biggest problem is how much money and the emotions involved. They virtually assure that when it comes to automobiles, juries, science and engineering, the blame rarely gets placed where it belongs.
© Ed Wallace 2015
Ed Wallace is a recipient of the Gerald R. Loeb Award for business journalism. He hosts Wheels, 8:00 to 1:00 Saturdays on 570 KLIF AM. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org; read all of Ed’s work at www.insideautomotive.com.