Fiat Chrysler Ordered To Pay $150 Million In Jeep Fuel Tank Fire Death

NEW YORK (Reuters) -- A jury in Georgia awarded $150 million to a family that sued Fiat Chrysler for the 2012 death of their 4-year-old in a fiery crash involving a 1999 Jeep Grand Cherokee with a rear fuel tank.

Following a nearly two-week trial in Decatur County, Georgia, jurors on Thursday said Fiat Chrysler, a unit of Fiat Chrysler Automobiles NV, was liable for the death of Remington Walden and failed to warn customers that the tank's position could increase the risk of fire in a rear-end crash.

FCA spokesman Michael Palese said the company was disappointed with the verdict and will consider appealing. Gualberto Ranieri, FCA's senior vice president of communications,

wrote in a blog today

that the automaker was unable to present crucial evidence to defend its case. 

"FCA US and its more than 14,000 employees extend their deepest sympathies to the parents of young Remington Walden," Ranieri wrote. But crashes of this kind -- though they occur less than one time for every million years of vehicle operation, according to unheard evidence -- are a sorrowful reality."

Chrysler previously recalled 1.56 million Jeep SUVs with rear fuel tanks, although the 1999 Jeep Grand Cherokee in which Walden was riding was not among them.

The jury, which began deliberating Thursday afternoon, said Chrysler acted with "reckless and wanton disregard" and ordered it to pay 99 percent of the damages. The driver of the vehicle that rear-ended the Grand Cherokee was responsible for the other 1 percent.

Walden was killed when the Jeep he was riding in was struck from behind, rupturing the fuel tank and creating an "inferno," according to Jim Butler, a lawyer for the family. Had the fuel tank been placed farther forward on the vehicle, he said, it would have been better protected.

Concerns over fuel-tank placement prompted Chrysler to announce in 2013 that it would recall 1993-98 Jeep Grand Cherokees, along with the Jeep Libertys from model years 2002-07. The company also said it would conduct a "customer satisfaction campaign" for 1999-2004 Jeep Grand Cherokees.

The announcement came after Chrysler initially denied there was a safety issue. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has linked more than 50 deaths to the fuel-tank issues.

But Ranieri, in his blog, wrote that jurors were not allowed to hear evidence showing that "tragedies of the same type occur more frequently in 57 other vehicles on U.S. roads."

"Twenty-one of the 57 have the same fuel-tank placement as the 1999 Jeep Grand Cherokee. None of the above vehicles was ever subject to a safety recall for fire-related rear-end crashes."

Chrysler's lawyers said at trial that the fire did not cause Walden's death and blamed the driver of the other vehicle. Fiat Chrysler CEO Sergio Marchionne, whose pre-recorded testimony was played during trial, said that regulators never found a defect in the 1999 Jeep Grand Cherokee and that there was no evidence the vehicle was dangerous. Reuters viewed the proceedings on Courtroom View Network.

Automotive News contributed to this report.

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