Safety or PR? Chrysler Recalls 630,000 Vehicles While Refusing to Recall 2.7 Million Jeeps

In what some say is a public relations move designed to shore up its safety image in light of its refusal to recall Grand Cherokee and Liberty models, Chrysler announced on June 6, 2013 it was recalling about 630,000 newer SUVs for transmission and airbag defects while standing by its position that 2.7 million Grand Cherokees and Liberty models made over 15 model years meet or exceed all U.S. safety standards.

According to Chrysler and filings with the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, Chrysler will recall 630,000 Jeeps to fix airbag deployment problems and transmission oil leaks as the 2010-2012 Jeep Compass and Patriot may deploy the side airbags too late in a crash, or not at all, due to a software error.  Chrysler said that during a rollover, the vehicle’s lateral acceleration sensors could send a faulty signal to the airbag module, which could also delay the seatbelt pre-tensioners or cause them to deactivate.  In total, 254,396 vehicles are affected in the U.S.

The recall also affects 181,131 Wranglers equipped with automatic transmissions.  A tube carrying fluid for the power-steering system can be in “hard contact” with the transmission oil cooler tube, which was switched from steel to a softer aluminum starting in the 2012 model year, Chrysler said.  In August 2012, Chrysler fitted rubber parts to cushion the tubes and later redesigned the power-steering tube to be farther away from the transmission tube, which was fitted with a sleeve, starting in February 2013.  The problem has occurred in at least 81 customer vehicles.  Starting in July, dealers will replace the power-steering tube system with the latest design and fit sleeves on the transmission oil cooler tube.

But Chrysler is no stranger to the controversy over refusal of a safety recall.  In the 1990’s Chrysler successfully fought off a recall when its legal team consisting of current Chief Justice John Roberts and an armada of attorneys fought the NHTSA in the courts and defeated NHTSA’s attempt to recall about 91,000 Cirrus and Dodge Stratus cars from model year 1995 because of concerns about the strength of seat-belt anchors.  With Roberts as its lawyer, Chrysler won a 1998 appeal, getting the recall thrown out on a finding NHTSA had not given complete notice of the defects.

In refusing the request for a recall of the 2.7 million Cherokee and Liberty models, Chrysler chose to ignore the June 3, 2013 NHTSA statement that:

“In our tentative view, there is a performance defect and a design defect.  The performance defect is that the fuel tanks installed on these vehicles are subject to failure when the vehicles are struck from the rear.  Such failure can result in fuel leakage, which in the presence of external ignition sources can result in fire.  The design defect is the placement of the fuel tanks in the position behind the axle and how they were positioned, including their height above the roadway.  The defects present an unreasonable risk to motor vehicle because people in the MY 1993 – 2004 Jeep Grand Cherokee (ZJ and WJ), the MY 2002 – 2007 Jeep Liberty and in striking vehicles have burned to death in rear impact crashes, there have been fires (without fatalities) in these vehicles from rear impact crashes that have, or could have, led to deaths and injuries, and there have been leaks from Grand Cherokee and Liberty gas tanks from rear impact crashes that could have led to fire and death or injury.”

NHTSA requested that:”ODI requests that Chrysler initiate a safety recall on MY 1993-2004 Jeep Grand Cherokee and MY 2002-2007 Jeep Liberty vehicles and implement a remedy action that improves their performance in rear-impacts and crashes.  ODI requests that Chrysler notify all owners of the defect and that it provide a free remedy to the owners of each of the above vehicles in accordance with 49 U.S.C. § 30118-30120.”

Chrysler has maintained the vehicles meet federal standards and therefore there is no need to take any action.  But NHTSA disagreed, stating

“Chrysler maintains, and we do not dispute, that the Grand Cherokee and Liberty vehicles complied with the requirements of Federal motor vehicle safety standard (FMVSS) No. 301, Fuel System Integrity, that was applicable when the vehicles were manufacturedAs NHTSA has noted in the past, a federal motor vehicle safety standard is a “minimum standard for a motor vehicle . . . performance.” 49 U.S.C. 30102(a)(9). The existence of a minimum standard does not require NHTSA to ignore deadly problems.  Viewed another way, a FMVSS does not preclude a finding of a safety related defect in a vehicle when supported by the evidence.”

Where do we go from here?

According to NHTSA letter:

“If Chrysler decides not to conduct the requested recall, it must provide ODI with a full explanation of its decision, including any additional analysis of the problem beyond Chrysler’s past presentations.  If Chrysler fails to initiate a recall, NHTSA may proceed to an Initial Decision that these vehicles contain a safety-related defect.  See 49 U.S.C. § 30118.  An Initial Decision will be accompanied by the publication of a Federal Register notice describing the alleged defects, the safety consequences of these defects, the ODI investigation, the scheduling of a public meeting, and the issuance of a press release to inform the public of this matter.”

Now the ball shifts to Chrysler who can use its reservoirs of cash from it 2012 billion dollar profit to do what it did in the 1990s, fight it out in federal court, a fight that could ultimately land in lap of its former lawyer Supreme Court Justice Roberts.  In the meantime, there is no relief for the consumers whose taxes bailed out Chrysler and are now caught in a tug of war between Chrysler and NHTSA driving cars that NHTSA says are defective.

Americans rely on their car manufactures to provide a safe well-designed vehicle.  Sadly, that is not often the case.  The Auto Defect Attorneys at the Brandi Law Firm has successfully represented many people injured from defective Toyotas, Fords, Chrysler, GM products and numerous other manufacturers and suppliers.  Often times, people involved in accidents do not examine the issues of defective vehicle design nor whether the car was truly crashworthy – does it contain the appropriate crash protection.  If you or a loved one has been injured in an auto crash, our attorneys at the Brandi Law Firm are available to consult with you.  Please contact our office at 800-481-1615 or email us