Federal judge uncovers FCA’s willful continued use of defectively designed gearshift, while allowing vehicle owners to seek punitive damages
A federal judge overseeing a multidistrict litigation against Fiat Chrysler (FCA) today denied its motion to seal communications between itself and Jaguar revealing that FCA failed to halt the use of a defectively designed gearshift involved in the death of actor Anton Yelchin in 2015 and dozens of injuries involving rollaway vehicles, according to consumer-rights attorneys at Hagens Berman.
The lawsuit has been pending in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan since 2016 and accuses Fiat Chrysler of selling dangerously defective monostable gearshifts that provide “insufficient tactile and visual feedback to driver to make them aware whether the car has been shifted to the intended gear,” and have been linked to multiple deaths and serious injuries.
“FCA Sought to Seal a Smoking Gun”
In its 24-page order denying FCA’s motion to seal the letter between it and Jaguar, U.S. District Judge David M. Lawson highlighted that, “The plaintiff points to the letter to show that FCA historically had considered using an alternative and safer design but elected to go ahead with marketing its own defective shifter instead.”
“We believe Fiat Chrysler was caught using phony excuses to hide what it knew early on about the dangers of its gearshift design,” said Steve Berman, managing partner of Hagens Berman and attorney representing vehicle owners in the lawsuit. “It appears FCA sought to seal a smoking gun, and we are pleased that the court has not only allowed the public to read this evidence in the public record, but also allow us to amend our case based on this uncovered evidence.”
Judge Lawson said in his order, “The defendant’s vaguely articulated concerns about damaging the confidentiality of its negotiations with Jaguar do not supply any sufficient basis for the requested closure of the Court’s records.”
“FCA has taken the position in this case that the plaintiff cannot prove a product defect under the risk-utility test because there was no safer alternative design available at the time, including the rotary shifter used by Jaguar,” the order states. “The defendant contends that ‘IP issues’ prevented the adoption of the rotary design for Jeep models due to perceived competition with Jaguar’s own Land Rover branded SUVs. The letter undercuts that position.”
The letter clearly shows Jaguar responding to Fiat Chrysler, after “…in 2010 Chrysler approached Jaguar Land Rover (JLR) to request a licence[sic] to the technology in JLR’s rotary transmission selector.” In the letter, Jaguar states, “We would therefore like to offer Chrysler the opportunity to re-open the negotiations for the use of this technology, which JLR remains willing to license to Chrysler on appropriate terms.”
Berman added, “FCA likely didn’t want to pay the extra cash to license Jaguar’s safe designs, and instead chose to risk it, putting the public at risk, leading to the loss of at least two lives, and the injuries of many.”
The named plaintiff in the case, Dedra Maneotis, experienced a harrowing event in 2013 when her 2014 Jeep Grand Cherokee began to roll backwards after she attempted to put the vehicle in park. As she exited the vehicle, without warning, the car began to move. Ms. Maneotis tried to maintain control while holding onto the door and steering wheel, with one foot already out of the vehicle.
“However, as she tried to keep up with the car, the car door slipped a half-height decorative wall and bent backward, causing Dedra to lose her grip on the door handle, and she struggled to stay upright…” The car gained speed, and Dedra lost her hold on the car.
The order states, “…she fell, and her leg got wrapped up in the front driver-side wheel. The Jeep then rolled up onto the half-height decorative wall and over her leg rolled over, and then spun out on her leg, causing serious injuries.”
The court’s order allows Ms. Maneotis to file an amended complaint adding a request for punitive damages by Apr. 22, 2022.
Recovery of punitive damages, as the order states, are assessed by a jury for circumstances of fraud, malice or willful and wanton conduct. “The knowing concealment from buyers of material information about product defects, for the purpose or inducing them to purchase or pay more for the product, is sufficient to prove the required fraudulent conduct…” the court stated.
Hagens Berman is a global plaintiffs’ rights complex litigation law firm with a tenacious drive for achieving real results for those harmed by corporate negligence and fraud. Since its founding in 1993, the firm’s determination has earned it numerous national accolades, awards and titles of “Most Feared Plaintiff’s Firm,” MVPs and Trailblazers of class-action law. More about the law firm and its successes can be found at www.hbsslaw.com. Follow the firm for updates and news at @ClassActionLaw.