Chrysler Minivan Liftgate Latch
One of the more lethal defects in history of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) investigations is the weak liftgate hatch on 1984-95 Chrysler minivans. The hatch pops open in moderate impacts at speeds less than 20 miles per hour. At least 41 people, mostly children, were killed when the liftgates opened in accidents. Even buckling up may not help; the removable rear seats often come loose in accidents and fly out the open liftgate with children still restrained in the flying seat.
NHTSA missed an early chance to catch this defect and recall the affected minivans when it opened PE90-079 in May 1990 on 1986-89 models when 2-year old Noah George of Washington County PA was ejected through the rear hatch of a 1987 Plymouth Voyager and killed. NHTSA closed the investigation after focusing on defective rear seats rather than defective hatch latches.
NHTSA began its direct investigation of Chrysler’s liftgate latches with a Preliminary Evaluation (PE93-084) in September 1993, and quickly upgraded the investigation to an Engineering Analysis (EA94-005) in January 1994 after receiving additional injury and fatality reports. In December 1994, NHTSA met with Chrysler officials and showed them the results of NHTSA crash tests on Chrysler and competitor minivans in which NHTSA used an FMVSS 214 moving barrier to impact the side of each minivan behind the rear wheel well. The Chrysler vans did dismally with its liftgate popping open in moderate impacts of 30-mph. Despite giving the test results to Chrysler, NHTSA did not make them public. This is the first known investigation where this happened.
On February 1, 1995, Ralph Hoar & Associates (RHA) filed a Freedom of Information Act request for the crash tests shown to Chrysler. When NHTSA refused to release the tests, RHA filed a FOIA lawsuit on May 23, 1995. On May 30, 1997, Judge Gladys Kessler ruled in RHA’s favor and awarded plaintiff $45,000 in attorney fees and costs. Hoar & Associates v. NHTSA, 985 F.Supp 1 (D.D.C. 1997). The court noted: The tapes showed, in very graphic terms, the extent of the problem associated with the minivan latch and the dangers associated with ejection from the vehicle if the latch did not operate properly. The airing of the tapes would increase public knowledge of the latch problem and the likelihood that minivan owners would take advantage of Chrysler’s offer to replace their latches. This dissemination of information to the public was particularly needed because of Chrysler’s repeated, well-publicized statements that the latches were not defective and that the minivans were safe.
Chrysler balked at a recall and brought Congressional pressure to head off a voluntary recall request. In March 1995 NHTSA issued a press release urging Chrysler minivan owners as well as owners of other vehicles to report any incidents of rear hatch or liftgate openings in crashes. By the end of March 1995, NHTSA had received a total of 151 crash related liftgate opening complaints, which resulted in 107 ejections, 76 injuries and 32 fatalities.
On March 28, 1995, Chrysler announced it would replace the rear liftgate latches on 4.5 million minivans manufactured in 1984 through 1995. This includes the Dodge Caravan, the Plymouth Voyager and the Chrysler Town & Country. However, Chrysler did not actually recall the vehicles. Instead, the manufacturer performed the repairs as part of a “service action”, not a NHTSA-ordered recall. But in June 1995, Chrysler informed NHTSA that it would not be before mid-1996 that latches would be ready and the service campaign carried out.
The delay in the service campaign occurred because NHTSA lost control over Chrysler letting the company off the hook without a safety recall. In a voluntary service action, Chrysler does not have to adhere to any of the government-specified rules associated with a recall. For example, in a recall, the manufacturer has to clearly explain the hazard that results from the defect; in a voluntary campaign, they do not. In a recall Chrysler cannot deny there is a safety hazard; in the service campaign, Chrysler has routinely denied there is a safety hazard. Also, safety recalls are subject to NHTSA compliance monitoring to make sure the company is performing the recall correctly; Chrysler will not have to answer to anyone about the progress or success of the recall. Under a recall, a dealer is subject to a $1,000 fine for failing to do a recall repair when the consumer brings in the vehicle; in a service campaign, there is no dealer sanction. At the time of the announcement of the service action, safety advocates warned that this absence of the statutory protections attendant to a government-mandated recall would result in fewer consumers responding to the service campaign and thus fewer vehicles being repaired.
These dire predictions proved accurate. As of July 1, 1997, fully twenty-seven months after the announcement of the service action, 57% of the owners who had received notification had responded to that notification. Only 2,363,879 of 4,138,260 vehicle owners obtained the replacement latch. In comparison, the average safety recall gets a 67% completion rate after 18 months.
Just as expected, the long delay, the mixed messages, and the absence of strong government supervision have all led to consumer confusion and thus a failure to achieve the stated goals of the service action agreement. It would appear, then, that NHTSA Administrator Dr. Ricardo Martinez will experience the “chest pains” to which he referred when discussing the possibility of obtaining less than a 67 percent response rate in the service action.
On October 8, 1997 in the largest judgment ever against an American automaker, the trial jury in Jimenez v. Chrysler Corp., No. CA 2:96-1269-1 (U.S. District Court, D.S.C.) awarded $12.5 million in actual damages and $250 million in punitive damages to the Jimenez family for the death of their six-year old son Sergio after a 1994 accident in which the Jimenez’s 1985 Dodge Caravan was struck by another vehicle. The little boy died from head injuries sustained after being ejected from the family vehicle. The jury concluded that Chrysler negligently designed the rear liftgate latch, the release of which caused the ejection during the accident.
A key factor in the punitive damages award was Chrysler’s lobbying efforts in Washington to prevent NHTSA from requesting or ordering a safety recall. Chrysler CEO Robert Eaton was confronted in a deposition with internal documents showing details of how Chrysler lobbies federal agencies and Congress. The jury award in Jimenez was overturned on appeal at 269 F.3d 439 C.A.4 (S.C.), 2001 and ultimately settled for an undisclosed amount.
A class action was filed against Chrysler which made the service action agreed to in NHTSA’s settlement agreement closing the defective investigation enforceable in court. Hanlon v. Chrysler Corp., 1998 WL 296890 C.A.9 (Cal. June 9, 1998).