Georgia Court Affirms $150M Wrongful Death Verdict Against Automaker

Every day, millions of parents entrust the safety of their children to the cars they drive. If there is a defect in a vehicle’s manufacture or design, a parent may not learn about until it is too late and their child has paid the price. When that happens, parents understandably want to hold the vehicle manufacturer responsible.

Chrysler Group, LLC v. Walden

The Georgia Court of Appeals recently addressed such a terrible and tragic case. In 2012, a woman was driving her 4-year-old nephew to an activity when her Jeep Grand Cherokee was rear-ended by another driver. Upon impact, the Jeep’s fuel tank exploded, setting the vehicle on fire. According to court records, the 4-year-old “was alive and conscious while the Grand Cherokee was on fire and may have lived up to a minute with flames in contact with his body” before he died.

The child’s parents sued Chrysler, the Jeep’s manufacturer, alleging it was reckless for the manufacture of the Grand Cherokee and that the company breached its “duty to warn” consumers about the risk the gas tank could explode on impact. At trial, the parents introduced testimony from a former Chrysler manager who said the company “knew that the gas tank in the 1999 Grand Cherokee was vulnerable and would be crushed in rear impacts.” The parents also presented evidence that Chrysler has knowledge of at least 17 other rear-end collisions involving Jeep vehicles where “fuel escaped from the tank.”

The jury held Chrysler was 99% at fault for the child’s death and awarded the parents $120 million in damages for wrongful death and another $30 million for the child’s pain and suffering. Chrysler asked the trial judge to reduce the entire verdict to $40 million, but the court refused. Chrysler then appealed the entire verdict.

The Court of Appeals, however, saw no error in the jury’s decision. Among other things, the appeals court rejected Chrysler’s challenge to the admission of the 17 prior collisions involving Jeep fuel tanks, noting they involved “different models” than the vehicle involved in this accident. The court said the evidence was still admissible because all of the vehicles shared a “common design” and the accidents had a common cause–i.e., a “rear impact” that caused gasoline to leak out of the fuel tank.

As for the size of the damages awarded, the Court of Appeals rejected Chrysler’s claim it was “improperly” motivated by the jury’s “passion and prejudice.” It should be noted the parents did not seek punitive damages. Nonetheless, the appeals court said $150 million was not an “excessive” award taking into account all relevant factors. The victim was 4 years old, meaning he had his life ahead of him and had an “unlimited earning potential,” according to the court, and he died in the most painful way possible. Given this, the appeals court said it could not say the jury’s decision was wrong, or that the trial judge should have reduced the award as Chrysler demanded.

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