In June 2016, the actor Anton Yelchin, known for his roles in Star Trek and Charlie Bartlett, was found dead, pinned against his driveway fence and crushed by his Grand Cherokee. The fatal accident resulted from a faulty gearshift in the SUV that caused it to roll away when it was ostensibly parked. Yelchin's family is now suing the maker, Fiat Chrysler Automobiles, for product liability and negligence.
This article will go over the gearshift recall, why Chrysler is now the subject of lawsuits as a result of it, and what lessons business owners and leaders should learn from the incident.
Chrysler's Gearshift Recall
Yelchin's vehicle was not the only one equipped with a faulty gearshift. In mid-2016, Fiat Chrysler issued a massive recall of over 810,000 cars for the same issue.
Typically, automobile drivers can shift from Drive to Park by simply applying the brakes, clicking the lock button on the gearshift system, and moving it up until it reaches the parking position. But with these faulty parts, the gearshift returns to center position after the driver has shifted it to the Park option. The result is that many drivers leave the car in gear while believing it has been parked. To make matters worse, the ignition programming in affected vehicles seemed to not shut off the vehicle as it normally would. Some drivers, as a result, found themselves surprised to see their supposedly parked vehicle rolling away.
Roll-away incidents on roads, in parking lots, and in driveways have already caused a number of injuries, and some of the accidents have been fatal, making the situation worse than it could have been.
The recall was initiated as the result of an inquiry conducted by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA). Since its investigation, the NHTSA has recorded nearly 686 consumer complaints about the gearshift system. Most of these incidents occurred in the United States, with no major reports of accidents in other countries.
Liability for Fiat Chrysler
Chrysler was aware of over 41 injuries and nearly 700 accidents that may have been related to mistakes resulting from the confusing gearshift position. In late April, 2016, they publicly announced the recall of 2014 - 2015 Jeep Grand Cherokees, 2012 - 2014 Chrysler 300s, and 2012 - 2014 Dodge Chargers (later models have a different, more intuitive gear selection system).
In response to Yelchin's tragic death, Chrysler decided to accelerate the recall and directly notifying customers of the issue. It was, however, a move that came a bit too late for the company. Not only did Yelchin's family sue the company, but several other victims have filed cases against the company for incidents related to the gearshift issue.
And these initial lawsuits are not likely to be the end of the matter for Chrysler. As I mention on my website, TheProductLawyers.com, victims can still file Chrysler Roll-Away lawsuits if there are injuries caused by the issue. The NHTSA also manages a website where drivers and car owners can file complaints about these types of issues, enabling them to investigate the matter thoroughly and take action where necessary.
The company planned to undertake a software update to ensure that
vehicles will not move when left in the Park position, along with the
existing warning lights and buzzers indicating that a vehicle isn't
parked. As a way to eliminate the issue altogether, Chrysler
has created some new features in their sedans and minivans that can
detect when the door is open and automatically engages the handbrake.
Both Chrysler and the NHTSA advise any driver of a vehicle with the recalled gearshifts to use the emergency brake any time the vehicle is parked, whether they plan to leave the vehicle for a long period of time or just a few moments.
Lessons from the Recall
It's clear, especially in retrospect, that Chrysler acted too slowly. They waited to announce the recall and, once they did, it took a high-profile incident to get them to speed it up. As a result, they are now open to legal liability for the injuries and fatalities related to their product.
We can't be sure of the company's motive in this case, but any business facing a large-scale recall might be tempted to issue it slowly (if at all) because of the hefty expense of notifying consumers and replacing or repairing parts and products. On top of that, there may be worries about the company's brand image suffering. The safety of vehicles is a big selling point for car companies and a massive recall could affect the public's perception of the safety of their product. Even when safety isn't a salient selling feature, a recall risks making the company look like manufacturers of low-quality products.
But if there's any lesson to be learned from the Chrysler recall, it's that despite these worries, acting quickly is the best course of action. The cost of a recall can be high, but it's small in comparison to the compensation that a company might need to pay out to victims of a hazardous faulty product. Likewise, the reputational harm that may result from a recall is slim compared to the way a brand can suffer once it is associated with injuries or fatalities. Moreover, a swift reaction shows the public that the company cares and takes every step to keep consumers safe and ensure the quality of their products.
The liability that comes with a delayed reaction to a product recall can have serious implications. Putting cost savings or PR ahead of product integrity and customer safety is never a good gamble.