Georgia court rules against Fiat Chrysler in Jeep fire case

By KATE BRUMBACKMarketsAssociated Press

Georgia's highest court on Thursday ruled against Fiat Chrysler, which had appealed a $40 million judgment awarded to the family of a 4-year-old boy who died in a Jeep fire.

Remington "Remi" Walden died in 2012 after a Jeep Grand Cherokee he was riding in was hit from behind and burst into flames.

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In a lawsuit against Fiat Chrysler, the boy's parents argued that mounting the fuel tank behind the rear axle in the 1999-model Jeep left it vulnerable in a crash and amounted to reckless disregard for human life by the manufacturer.

The company, called Chrysler Group at the time, said the crash was caused by a reckless pickup truck driver who hit the Jeep at a high speed. Fiat Chrysler has insisted the Jeep's fuel system met federal safety standards and didn't pose an unreasonable safety risk.

A jury in 2015 found in favor of the boy's parents, awarding them $120 million for wrongful death and $30 million for pain and suffering.

Fiat Chrysler asked Decatur County Superior Court Judge J. Kevin Chason for a new trial, but he denied it on the condition that the parents accept $30 million in wrongful death damages and $10 million in pain and suffering damages, for a total of $40 million. The parents accepted.

Fiat Chrysler appealed, saying Chason abused his judicial discretion. The Georgia Court of Appeals in November 2016 rejected that appeal. Fiat Chrysler appealed that ruling to the Georgia Supreme Court.

The company's lawyers had objected during trial when the parents' lawyers asked for a confirmation of the CEO's annual pay, but the judge allowed it. The parents' lawyers then asked the jury "for the full value of Remington's life of at least $120 million," which they noted was less than two years of salary for the CEO.

Lawyers for the company argued to the state Supreme Court that the CEO's pay was improperly used to make a direct statement of about the company's wealth, and information about the company's wealth could not be used.

The parents' lawyers had argued the CEO's pay was relevant because he had personally said that Jeep model was safe and because the fact that he was dependent on the company for his livelihood made him biased in the company's favor.

Georgia Supreme Court Justice Britt Grant wrote in an opinion published Thursday that because the CEO was alleged to have inserted himself in a federal safety investigation to the detriment of the boy's parents, the jury needed to be able to evaluate his bias and credibility.

Because of the particular circumstances of this case, Grant wrote, "we cannot say that the prejudicial effect of the evidence so far outweighed its probative value that its admission was clear and obvious reversible error."

"Remi died by fire 6 years ago this month," Jim Butler, a lawyer for the family said in an email. "Remi's parents and their legal team hope this is the end of it. We thank all the judges who devoted such time and effort to this case."

The company said in an emailed statement that it is disappointed by the decision and is considering its legal options.

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Associated Press writer Tom Krisher in Detroit contributed to this report.