South Bend, Ind. It’s been more than a year since Chrysler agreed to a limited recall of some of its older Jeep models. The potential problem is a fuel tank mounted behind the rear axle, which when struck in a rear-end collision can rupture and lead to fires.
It’s a nightmare scenario that became a reality for one South Bend mother in 2012. Ana Piña’s 2000 Cherokee burst into flames after she was rear ended on US-30 on her way to Munster.
She suffered severe burns over 40 percent of her body, lost her ears, part of her nose and the tips of her fingers as a result.
Piña’s Cherokee was not included in the limited recall issued by Chrysler last year, although the Center for Auto Safety included the Cherokee model in a petition to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.
NHTSA did not include the Cherokee in its recall request to Chrylser in June 2013.
The recalled cars are 1993-2004 Jeep Grand Cherokees and 2002-2007 Jeep Libertys.
Within that recall, a delay in servicing those vehicles has raised some concerns among safety advocates.
The CAS reported to NHTSA on July 2 that no cars had been serviced under the recall to date.
And the delay has come at a sad expense, according to CAS data. At least four people have died and 2 more were seriously burned in Jeep fire crashes since the recall was issued.
The choice of remedy – installing a trailer hitch on recalled vehicles – has also been a source of controversy.
“It was never considered a safety item,” said former Chrysler manager Paul Sheridan. “I never considered it a safety item and neither did the engineers on the Jeep side of that organization.”
Sheridan headed Chrysler’s safety leadership for 11 years.
Chrysler fired and sued Sheridan, alleging that he revealed confidential company information. Sheridan countered with a whistle blower lawsuit, claiming that he was fired for speaking out about safety issues.
Sheridan’s suit was dismissed and Chrysler’s was dropped. Now Sheridan works as a paid industry consultant, testifying in Jeep victim cases like Ana Piña’s.
And in that case, a trailer hitch did not save Piña from a fuel-fed fiery crash that left her severely burned and disfigured.
“Yes, Ana’s truck had a trailer hitch,” said Ines Murphy, Piña’s attorney. “It’s designed to tow. To suggest that a trailer hitch is now going to protect the gas tank -- that’s absurd. It’s such an absurd ‘solution.’ It’s a sham.”
Chrysler provided a statement to NewCenter16 in regards to Piña’s vehicle.
“The vehicles are safe,” said Chrysler, “They met or exceeded all federal standards in effect when they were first sold.”
Chrysler cited NHTSA trailer hitch crash test data in defending their usefulness and NHTSA has sanctioned the trailer hitch as a competent remedy for the fuel tank defect.
NHSTA issued a special order to Chrysler on July 2 inquiring into the slow pace of the recall.
Chrysler responded that its supplier will be able to produce all the trailer hitches needed by March 2015 and should finish installing them for all interested customers by the following March.
In the meantime, many victims like Piña see every older model Jeep on the road as a “ticking time bomb.”
“No matter how small the probably of the fire death event is, Chrysler and NHTSA are deciding that the roll of the dice is what constitutes safety,” Sheridan said. “Not the competent and urgent retrofitting of a competent remedy. So the bottom line is more deaths and more injuries are going to occur.”