On June 3, 2013, the United States Department of Transportation, National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) asked Chrysler to recall 2.7 million Jeeps for fire concerns. NHTSA sent Chrysler a letter asking it to recall the 1993-2004 Jeep Grand Cherokee and 2002-07 Jeep Liberty. NHTSA says fires caused by gasoline leaking from punctured gas tanks in rear-end crashes have killed 51 people.
Unfortunately for the American public, Chrysler is refusing to recall these vehicles and steadfastly insists its vehicles are safe and have met all federal requirements. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s position is that the location of the gas tank is unsafe. The gas tank should not be placed behind the rear axle.
This is the identical argument Gary Eto successfully made two decades ago in the case, Navarro vs. General Motors, Los Angeles Superior Court Case No. EC015454.
On July 25, 1993, plaintiff Hugo Navarro was a passenger in a 1979 Chevrolet Monte Carlo that was rear ended by a Datsun pickup truck. Seconds after the impact, the rear of the Monte Carlo burst into flames, which rapidly engulfed the entire vehicle.
Mr. Navarro sustained third degree burns all over his body and spent several painful and agonizing months in the burn ward and intensive care unit at Los Angeles County USC Hospital, where he received multiple surgeries including extensive skin grafts. Mr. Navarro suffered permanent injuries, including disfigurement. He retained attorney Gary Eto to represent him. The case went to trial in 1996.
At trial, Mr. Eto contended that the fuel system of the Chevrolet Monte Carlo was defectively and negligently designed because the gas tank was placed in an unsafe location by the manufacturer when they designed and manufactured the vehicle. The gas tank was located at the rear of the vehicle, directly between the rear bumper and the rear axle, in what was then commonly referred to as the “Crush Zone.” Mr. Eto produced evidence that the automobile industry had long been aware of the dangers of placing the gas tank in the crush zone, including patents revealing alternate and safer locations for fuel tank placement, as well as alternative designs used by various European manufacturers. Mr. Eto also argued that General Motors should have placed a firewall between the gas tank and the occupant compartment to minimize the spread of gasoline and propagation of flames and fire in the event the fuel tank was compromised. Plaintiffs also argued that the gas tank’s filler neck, should not have been located at the rear of the vehicle, because it would be impacted before the remainder of the fuel system when the vehicle was rear ended. Mr. Eto also maintained that the fuel system’s sending unit was improperly attached to the gas tank, as the sending unit was dislodged during the collision, leaving a huge opening from which the gasoline escaped. Finally, Gary Eto argued that the defendant General Motors’ crash testing of its vehicles was woefully inadequate and negligent.
Defendant General Motors contended that its vehicle was not defective and that the location of the fuel tank at the rear of the vehicle was safe.
The jury returned a verdict in excess of a million dollars. General Motors appealed the verdict. The California Court of Appeal agreed with the plaintiffs and affirmed the verdict.
At the time of the Navarro vs. General Motors case, (early to mid 1990’s) virtually all American automobile manufacturers in the United States erroneously argued that because Ninety Six percent (96 %) of the domestically made vehicles on the road had gas tanks located at the rear of the vehicles, behind the bumper, in the crush zone, that it was a safe design. Although this was the position articulated by the automobile industry, the then state of the art knowledge and current literature indicated otherwise.
As set forth below “A 1993 study of fire related deaths in rear crashes occurring from 1997 to 1989 concluded that the increasing relocation of tanks ahead of the rear axle had a substantial effect on the reduction of these deaths in rear impacts” (Letter from National Highway Traffic Safety Administration to Chrysler dated June 3, 2013). This letter also states that a survey of vehicle produced in model years 2002-2003 revealed that fewer than six percent (6%) had the gas tank still in the crush zone. How times have changed! Lawsuits do make safer vehicles!