Georgia Supreme Court Upholds $40 Million Fatal Jeep Fire Award, Finding No Error in Admission of Testimony About CEO’s $68 Million Compensation

The Georgia State Supreme Court has unanimously upheld a $40 million award to the family of a four-year-old boy killed in 2012 when the 1999 Jeep Grand Cherokee in which he was riding was rear-ended and burst into flames, Chrysler Group LLC v. Walden, 2018 Ga. LEXIS 154 (3/15/18).

In 2015, the jury returned a verdict of nearly $150 million in favor of the parents, but the trial court suggested a remittitur to $40 million, which was accepted by the plaintiffs. The Jeep’s fuel tank had been placed near the back of the vehicle, which plaintiffs said made it vulnerable to rear-end collisions.  Four-year-old Remington Walden was a rear seat passenger who was trapped in the Jeep and burned to death.

The Supreme Court said that “evidence showed that Chrysler had long known that mounting a gas tank behind the rear axle was dangerous. Evidence also showed that Chrysler’s placement of the gas tank behind the rear axle was contrary to industry trends, which favored placing tanks in front of the rear axle.”

Fiat Chrysler lawyers contended that the fire did not cause boy’s death, but blamed the driver of the pick-up truck that rear ended the Jeep. On appeal, the defendant contended it was prejudicial to allow testimony about Chief Executive Sergio Marchionne’s compensation, which totaled more than $68 million, into evidence at trial. They also denied there was a safety issue and claimed the vehicles were no more dangerous than comparable SUVs built at the time. However, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) has linked more than 50 deaths to the Jeep fuel-tank issue.

Fiat Chrysler had to recall 1.56 million 2002-07 Jeep Liberty and 1993-2004 Jeep Grand Cherokee SUVs in June 2013 to address fire risks and they agreed to install trailer hitches to protect the gas tanks. The recall and a “customer satisfaction campaign” that covered the Jeep in the fatal Georgia crash occurred after CEO Marchionne held private talks with senior government officials in 2013.

The Supreme Court concluded “not that compensation evidence is always admissible to show the bias of an employee witness, or that it is never admissible, but that such evidence is subject to the Rule 403 analysis weighing the evidence’s unfair prejudice against its probative value.” And, “because Chrysler did not raise a Rule 403 objection to the compensation evidence at issue” the Court concluded “that under the particular circumstances of this case—where the jury’s evaluation of the bias and credibility of Chrysler’s CEO were central to the allegations in the case because the CEO was alleged to have specifically interjected himself in a federal safety investigation to the detriment of the plaintiffs—we cannot say that the prejudicial effect of the evidence so far outweighed its probative value that its admission was clear and obvious reversible error.”

Therefore, although the Supreme Court disagreed with the rationale of the Court of Appeals, it affirmed its judgment, and upheld the $40 million award.

 

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