By Ken Bensinger, Los Angeles Times
June 5, 2013
For two decades, some Jeep SUV models have shown an alarming tendency to burst into flames after rear-end collisions. At least 51 people have died.
On Tuesday, after a two-year investigation, federal safety regulators identified a likely cause — defective fuel tanks — and called for parent company Chrysler to issue a massive recall of 2.7 million vehicles. The decision marked a victory for safety advocates who have compared the Jeep fires to the 1970s crisis involving fire-prone Ford Pintos.
But in a rare act of defiance, the Auburn Hills, Mich., carmaker refused to recall the vehicles. In a strongly worded statement, Chrysler attacked the regulator’s conclusions and insisted the vehicles pose no danger.
The gambit sets up a high-stakes battle between the nation’s third-largest automaker and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. If Chrysler prevails, it could encourage more challenges from cost-conscious car companies.
The financial stakes are huge for Chrysler, balancing the costs of a massive recall against the risk of litigation on behalf of injured or killed motorists. Federal regulators, for their part, must beat back a direct challenge to their typically unquestioned authority to protect the lives of motorists.
“Chrysler is taking a huge gamble here by fighting this,” said Clarence Ditlow, executive director of the Center for Auto Safety, which petitioned NHTSA to open the Jeep investigation and has pressured Chrysler to repair the vehicles. “Usually these things are resolved behind closed doors.”