Georgia Jury Awards $150 Million Against Chrysler for Child’s Death Caused by Fire
While the most important role of a large jury verdict is to compensate victims for their injuries and other forms of loss, large jury awards against manufacturers of defective vehicles also can promote improved safety standards. A $150 million verdict against Chrysler following the death of a four-year-old, who died in a vehicle fire after his aunt's Jeep Cherokee was rear-ended, has prompted federal regulators to revisit the safety of the gas tanks placement in these vehicles.
The lawsuit focused on safety concerns regarding placement of the gas tank in some older model Jeep Cherokees, which are located eleven inches from the back of the vehicle and six inches below the bottom. Lawyers for the family of the boy argued that Chrysler had known for decades that the gas tank design was dangerous according to the Daily Report. The attorneys also contended that Chrysler was aware that location of the gas tank in a more "midship" position between the axles offered a safer alternative.
Since the verdict earlier this month, Mark Rosekind, head of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) issued a public statement indicating that the agency is considering reopening its investigation into the safety of gas tanks installed in older model Jeeps. He also disclosed that an "organized group" is exploring other alternative actions that the agency may implement. According to Rosekind, "Everything is on the table . . . ."
While a pickup truck driver who also was sued rear-ended the Jeep, the jury found that Chrysler was 99 percent at-fault. Attempts by Chrysler to shift blame to the pickup driver were unsuccessful because of testimony during the trial that a leg fracture was the only injury caused by the impact of the collision. The medical examiner testified that the boy died from his burns after the vehicle burst into flames. Further, the crash did not cause injury to either the aunt or the driver of the pickup. The aunt was able to get out of the vehicle before it ignited but could not extricate her nephew from his safety restraint system in the backseat before the vehicle was engulfed in flames.
This case was also notable for the jury's rejection of Chrysler's arguments regarding damages. The lawyer for the car manufacturer contended that the jury should only award $50,000 for pain and suffering because the boy's suffering was "mercifully brief." The attorney for the plaintiff responded by starting a stop watch during his summation while the jury experienced a full minute of silence. He then told the jury to imagine what the boy was experiencing from the fire and smoke during the minute that passed as he suffered. The jury ultimately awarded $30 million for pain and suffering.
The jury was similarly unconvinced by the argument from Chrysler's attorney regarding damages for the value of the boy's life. The lawyer suggested a formula based on a 68-year life expectancy with annual earnings of $20,000 per year for a total award of $1.3 million. He also provided an alternative calculation based on $25,000 per year for a total of $1.7 million. The jury was advised by the lawyer that it should not take the placement of the gas tank into consideration when deciding what to award for the value of the boy's life. Apparently, the jury disagreed based on its award of $120 million for this portion of the verdict.
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