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Challenge to US$150m Jeep fire ruling

Published:Friday | May 8, 2015 | 5:57 PM


Fiat Chrysler has asked a Georgia, USA, judge for a new trial, a month after a jury awarded US$150 million to the family of a four year-old Georgia boy killed in a crash and fire involving a Jeep.

The company, which makes Jeeps, says the jury's award of US$120 million for the life of Remington Walden and US$30 million for his pain and suffering are "grossly excessive" and illegal under Georgia law. Fiat Chrysler, formally known as FCA US LLC, also contends the amounts are far higher than the largest awards in Georgia history that have been upheld on appeal.

Last month the jury in Decatur County ruled that Fiat Chrysler was 99 per cent responsible for Walden's death and that it acted with reckless disregard for human life in selling a 1999 Jeep Grand Cherokee to his family. Walden burned to death when the Jeep was hit from behind in March of 2012. The Jeep had a plastic gas tank mounted behind its rear axle which ruptured and leaked gasolene, causing a fire.

The company's motion contends that the "astonishing" size of the jury award was improperly swayed by passion and prejudice and should be set aside. It also asks the judge to reduce the award and require a new trial if the plaintiffs don't accept the lower amount.

Jim Butler, a Walden family attorney, called the grounds for the motion "nonsense." He says Fiat Chrysler is after reduced damages, which he expects the judge to grant. He also says his clients will accept that amount. Butler says the verdict was based on evidence, not on passion and prejudice.

In its motion on Thursday, Fiat Chrysler said the wrongful death award is more than 11 times the largest such award upheld on appeal in Georgia.

Fiat Chrysler also argues that Remi's suffering was brief, and that previously, the largest pain-and-suffering award in Georgia was US$7 million for a person who was hospitalised for months, paralysed and endured severe pain. "A US$30 million pain-and-suffering award for what plaintiffs acknowledge was at most one minute of suffering is irrational," the motion said.

The company says the Waldens' attorneys made improper appeals to the jury, urging it to act as a safety regulator and punish the company with big damages. The attorneys told the jury to base the amount of the award on Fiat Chrysler CEO Sergio Marchionne's total compensation of US$68 million, the motion stated.

passion and prejudice

"Where such plainly improper arguments are immediately

followed by irrational and stunningly excessive damage awards, there can be no doubt that the jury acted from passion and

prejudice," the motion stated.

Carl Tobias, a law professor at the University of Richmond, suspects that Fiat Chrysler is trying to reduce the award so it can negotiate a settlement. It's difficult to show that a jury was inflamed by passion and prejudice, he said. He also noted that the numbers are large compared to other Georgia verdicts. "It might convince an appellate court in Georgia to alter something or even order a new trial," he said.

The April 2 verdict came nearly two years after Fiat Chrysler compromised with US safety regulators and agreed to a scaled-down recall of 1.56 million older Jeeps with rear-mounted tanks. The tanks have little structure to protect them if struck from behind, making them susceptible to punctures and fires.

Federal documents show that at least 75 people have died in post-crash fires due to the tanks.

The jury deliberated less than two hours, ruling after a seven-day trial that Chrysler was 99 per cent at fault for the crash and the pick-up driver who hit the Jeep was one per cent at fault.

Chrysler has long contended that the Jeeps were no more dangerous than comparable SUVs built at the time. But Butler called the claim that the Jeeps are safe a "big lie."