By BOB CHRISTIE, Associated Press
PHOENIX (AP) – The family of a little girl who was killed when her mother’s car was driven from behind by a jeep on a highway from Phoenix can sue the SUV manufacturer for unlawful death because it did not install automatic emergency braking devices that were available as optional equipment, Arizona Supreme Court on Tuesday.
The court rejected arguments from lawyers for Jeep’s parent company Fiat Chrysler Automobiles US that the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration’s decision not to require the units precedes the state lawsuit.
The decision, written by Attorney General Bill Montgomery, also repealed a similar 2019 decision stating that automakers were immune to such lawsuits because of the federal government’s decision not to require the technology.
The crash on August 15, 2015 killed 4-year-old Vivian Varela, who was riding in the back seat of her mother’s Lexus sedan. Melissa Varela was preparing to take an exit off Loop 101 in northern Phoenix when traffic stopped as an emergency vehicle blocked the exit, according to one of her attorneys, Brent Ghelfi.
A nurse who had just finished her passport at a nearby hospital also intended to take the exit but did not notice a traffic stop until it was too late. Her Jeep Grand Cherokee slammed into the back of a Lexus, killing Vivian and injuring her mother.
Vivian was the only child of Melissa and her husband, Mitchell, who lived on the Phoenix subway at the time but now live in Franklin, Wisconsin.
Ghelfi said the 2014 Jeep could have been equipped with Fiat Chrysler’s version of the automatic emergency brake, but it was only included as an option with a package upgrade that added $ 10,000 to the price.
“What Chrysler did was they had a safety system that the Insurance Institute of America has studied that says it will prevent 60% of rear-end collisions,” Ghelfi said. “It’s a huge game change when it comes to car collisions.”
He said that car manufacturers have been incredibly slow in adopting the crash prevention technology while noting how car manufacturers have adopted airbags and other safety features to protect occupants. The item costs car manufacturers about $ 100.
“And the real tragedy here is that they choose it,” Ghelfi said. “They take a safety feature and they combine it with moonroof and leather seats and non-safety features. So you can only get the safety feature if you buy the upgraded trim level.”
In a statement, Fiat Chrysler Automobiles expressed its sympathy to the Varela family “for their loss and other damages resulting from this terrible, high-speed collision caused by an inattentive driver.”
“While we do not agree with Arizona’s Supreme Court ruling on the preemption defense, we look forward to presenting our other defense to the trial court,” the statement said.
The company noted that the Jeep Grand Cherokee involved met all applicable federal safety standards and said that although automatic emergency braking, known as AEB, is a promising new technology, it can not prevent all crashes.
“Trials that seek to impose an autonomous function on all vehicles may inadvertently hinder the development of better versions as the technology matures,” the company said.
Federal regulators do not mandate the equipment. The Supreme Court’s decision noted that the federal safety authority chose to refrain from introducing a mandate for several reasons, including that it wanted to stimulate innovation and that car manufacturers adopted the technology on their own
“To the extent that the administrative tasks reflect a federal policy on AEB technology, it is that the Agency encourages AEB innovation and wants it to be distributed more widely and sooner rather than later,” Montgomery wrote.
The case is now back in court, unless Fiat Chrysler appeals to the US Supreme Court. Expert witnesses have been detained and deposits are being taken, so a trial can take place quickly.
Ghelfi, Varela’s lawyer, called the carmakers’ failure to generally use automatic emergency braking “a nationally important and fundamental issue.”
He said modeling by experts determined that if Chrysler’s version of emergency braking had been installed on the jeep, Vivian would not have died.
“That car would have automatically braked, and this accident would have been a complete miss,” Ghelfi said. “In the worst case, it would have been a fender, and most likely it would have been a pure miss.”
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