Verdict - Spring 2014 - (Page 33)

feature BY JEB BUTLER E The Fiery and Predictable Consequences of Rear-Mounted Fuel Tanks xcepting the fiery consequences, the scene was unremarkable. The Belli family was driving south on Interstate 85 through Atlanta, Georgia in their Jeep Cherokee. A wreck had occurred ahead of them and a vehicle was parked on the side of the road. The Bellis slowed down to avoid hit- ting the parked car and, when they slowed, another vehicle struck their Cherokee in the rear. Rearend collisions like this occur every day on American roads. The consequences need not be - and normally are not - catastrophic. But for the Belli family, Chrysler's design decisions changed those consequences. Like all automobile manufacturers, Chrysler recognizes that the vehicles it makes will be involved in wrecks. Like all automobile manufacturers, Chrysler has a choice with regard to where it places the fuel tank: Chrysler can place a fuel tank someplace that is protected from impact, or someplace that is vulnerable to impact. Tragically, Chrysler chose option number two in many of its Jeep-branded vehicles. Specifically, Chrysler placed the fuel tanks in the Jeep Cherokees (and several other Jeep models) behind the rear axle and next to the rear bumper where it was vulnerable to rupturing in rear impacts. As a consequence, when the Bellis' Jeep was rearended on Interstate 85, the tank ruptured and the Jeep burst into flames. Mrs. Belli and her daughter died on the scene, and Mr. Belli died after eleven days in a hospital burn unit. Recognizing the Problem When lawyers confront a case like the Bellis,' the most important thing is the first thing: recognizing the problem. Although the driver of the vehicle that struck the Bellis was a proximate cause of the wreck, he was not the sole proximate cause of the Bellis' deaths. Had the fuel tank been in a safe location, there would have been no fire. Had the Jeep not caught fire, the Bellis would have sustained comparatively minor injuries. Therefore, the primary cause of the Bellis' deaths - as distinct from the relatively minor injuries they would have sustained without a fire - was not the striking driver, but Chrysler's decision to leave the fuel tank vulnerable in rear impact. The law refers Above is a rear view of a Jeep with a rearmounted fuel tank. The tank has been painted white in this photograph for ease of identification. to this principle as "crashworthiness": in foreseeable impacts, your car should protect you, not endanger you.1 Although identifying the failure in an automotive product liability case can be difficult, it is always worth looking if injuries are severe. For instance, when a Spring 2014 33

Table of Contents for the Digital Edition of Verdict - Spring 2014

President’s Message
What’s New at HQ
From Celebration to Coma the Story of Gangs, Violence, and a $35 Million Verdict
2014 Legislative Report
Who Is Driving the Van? a Look at Non-Emergency Medical Transport Accidents
Professional Practice Pointers
Civil Justice Pac Legislative Reception in Photos
Dram Shop Litigation: Think Twice Before Pouring That Next Drink
The Fiery and Predictable Consequences of Rear-Mounted Fuel Tanks
Notes: What’s New With GTLA Members
Book Review
GTLA Out & About in Photos
Case Updates: What’s New?
Workers’ Comp: Recent Developments
Welcome New GTLA Members!
Champion Members
Index to Advertisers/

Verdict - Spring 2014