The family can sue Jeep because it failed to install accessible braking devices, the Arizona court says

PHOENIX — The family of a little girl killed when her mother’s car was rear-ended by a Jeep on a Phoenix highway can sue the SUV’s manufacturer for wrongful death because it did not install automatic emergency brakes that were available as optional equipment, the Arizona Supreme Court ruled Tuesday .

The court rejected arguments by lawyers for Jeep parent Fiat Chrysler Automobiles US that the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration’s decision not to require the units predated the state lawsuit.

The decision written by Attorney General Bill Montgomery also overturned a similar ruling from 2019 that said automakers were immune from such lawsuits because of the federal agency’s decision not to require the technology.

The Aug. 15, 2015, crash killed 4-year-old Vivian Varela, who was riding in the backseat of her mother’s Lexus sedan. Melissa Varela was preparing to take an exit from the Loop 101 freeway in north Phoenix when traffic stopped because an emergency vehicle was blocking the exit, according to one of her attorneys, Brent Ghelfi.

A nurse who had just finished her shift at a nearby hospital also intended to take the exit but didn’t notice stopped traffic until it was too late. Her Jeep Grand Cherokee slammed into the back of the Lexus, killing Vivian and injuring her mother.

Vivian was the only child of Melissa and her husband, Mitchell, who lived in metro Phoenix at the time but now lives in Franklin, Wisconsin.

Ghelfi said the 2014 Jeep could have been equipped with Fiat Chrysler’s version of automatic emergency braking 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 changer when it comes to car collisions.”

He said automakers have been incredibly slow to adopt the crash prevention technology while noting how automakers have adopted airbags and other safety features to protect occupants. The item costs automakers about $100.

“And the real tragedy here is that they choose it,” Ghelfi said. “They take a safety feature and they combine it with a 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 sympathies to the Varela family “for their loss and other injuries resulting from this horrific, high-speed collision caused by an inattentive driver.”

“While we disagree with the Arizona Supreme Court’s ruling on the defense defense, we look forward to presenting our other defenses 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 while automatic emergency braking, known as AEB, is a promising new technology, it cannot prevent all crashes.

“Lawsuits 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 have not mandated the equipment. The Supreme Court decision noted that the federal safety agency chose to refrain from imposing a mandate for several reasons, including that it wanted to spur innovation and because automakers were adopting the technology on their own

“To the extent that the administrative records reflect a federal policy on AEB technology, it is that the agency encourages AEB innovation and wishes to see it deployed more widely and sooner rather than later,” Montgomery wrote.

The case now goes back to a trial court, unless Fiat Chrysler appeals to the US Supreme Court. Expert witnesses have been called and depositions are being taken, so a trial can happen quickly.

Ghelfi, Varela’s attorney, called automakers’ failure to widely use automatic emergency braking “a nationally important and fundamental issue.”

He said modeling done by experts determined that if Chrysler’s version of emergency braking had been installed on the Jeep, Vivian would not have died.

“It would have automatically braked that car, and this accident would have been a complete miss,” Ghelfi said. “At worst it would have been a fender bender, and most likely it would have been a complete miss.”

Bob Christie of the Associated Press wrote this story.


Why Western sanctions aren’t hitting Russia where it would really hurt: oil and gas

The pandemic has changed the way we work in central Pa.

The $100,000 Club: In Pa. 11,887 government employees earned six figures

Leave a Comment