Fiat Chrysler Rollaways Prompt Class Suit

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By Martina Barash

June 30 — Would-be class plaintiffs are suing the U.S. unit of Fiat Chrysler Automobiles NV over an allegedly dangerous gearshift in recalled vehicles, and a prominent industry critic says the automaker brought the problem on itself ( Wall v. FCA US LLC, C.D. Cal., No. 5:16-cv-01341, complaint filed 6/23/16 ).

Meanwhile, a software fix announced as part of a recall in April by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration is on a fast track.

Regulators recently tallied 68 rollaway injuries associated with a nontraditional gearshift in certain Dodge, Chrysler and Jeep vehicles, in addition to the death of actor Anton Yelchin in June, which is still being investigated.

The suit, filed June 23 in the U.S. District Court for the Central District of California, demands a more comprehensive recall that includes a do-not-drive instruction, loaner vehicles and more clarity on repair details and a time line. It also asks for a buyback option and damages, including punitive damages.

The plaintiffs seek to represent a nationwide class and California, Florida and Ohio subclasses.

The nationwide class could be substantial: Some 811,586 vehicles are potentially involved, automaker FCA US LLC told NHTSA in recall documents in May.

Attempts to reach FCA US June 30 weren't successful.

Clarence Ditlow, executive director of the Center for Auto Safety, told Bloomberg BNA June 30, “It’s a very serious problem. And if you take a look at it, Chrysler brought it on themselves because they knew about this since the 2012 models came out; they resisted a NHTSA investigation; and when they finally did agree to a recall in April of 2016, they sent letters to owners saying that there’s a defect in your car, but we can’t get it fixed” until the fourth quarter of the year.

But four days after Yelchin's death June 19, the company “told dealers they had a fix. And the fix is the same fix they were talking about back in April,” Ditlow said.

Recall Remedy

The recall remedy, outlined in a June 24 NHTSA report wrapping up a probe of the vehicles, consists of software changes to automatically shift the transmission to Park in three scenarios where the driver leaves the vehicle.

The complaint alleges the gear shifters, made by ZF Friedrichshaffen AG, use “an electronic mechanism that never actually ‘shifts' into any gear, but rather always moves back to a central location after being engaged.”

The shifter doesn't provide “tactile or position feedback” to the driver to indicate the vehicle is in Park, the suit alleges.

FCA US said in submissions to NHTSA that the car displays the gear position through indicator lights.

Ditlow said that if the automaker “had done what other companies did, which is put a positive lock on Park when you open the door and get out, if they had listened to their consumer complaints, if they had responded quickly to NHTSA’s investigation, they wouldn’t be in the mess they’re in today, and there probably wouldn’t be a class action.”

Parent company Fiat Chrysler got into hot water—and a fine up to $105 million—with NHTSA in 2015 for allegedly dragging its feet on recalls (43 PSLR 929, 8/3/15).

Hagens Berman Sobol Shapiro LLP represents the plaintiffs.

To contact the reporter on this story: Martina S. Barash in Washington at mbarash@bna.com

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Steven Patrick at spatrick@bna.com and Julie A. Steinberg at jsteinberg@bna.com

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