A Charleston family on Wednesday won the biggest auto safety award ever - $262.5 million - when a jury blamed a Dodge minivan’s defective rear latch for their 6-year-old son’s death.
“I can’t even talk,” the boy’s father, Sergio Jimenez, told The Associated Press. Jimenez is a mason with three other children. “I didn’t expect anything this big. I never thought it would be like this.”
Safety advocates say they hope the huge verdict encourages minivan owners to get their rear lift gates fixed - and finally persuades Chrysler Corp. to recall the minivans for the repairs.
“The jury said it’s more expensive to stone-wall than to recall,” said Clarence Ditlow, executive director of the Center for Auto Safety in Washington.
Chrysler plans to appeal.
“The accident that killed Sergio Jimenez (II) was a tragedy,” the company said in a statement. “But we do not believe the verdict in this trial was appropriate or that it was supported by the evidence. … We believe that the outrageously large punitive damage award shows that the jury was unduly influenced by the highly emotional nature of the circumstances of the accident.”
The son was riding in the back of the family’s 1985 Dodge Caravan in April 1994 in North Charleston when another vehicle, going about 5 mph, struck the minivan on the back of the driver’s side.
The collision caused the van to spin, roll over and land back on its wheels. Sergio tumbled out the back and fatally fractured his skull, the family’s lawyers argued.
Chrysler’s attorneys, however, argued that the younger Sergio wasn’t in a seat belt or safety seat and was thrown through the side window, not the rear lift gate. Chrysler also says the minivan’s driver ran a red light, but the family denies that, and the trial judge refused to allow evidence about the traffic signal.
The Charleston jury, after a monthlong trial, found Chrysler responsible for the boy’s death, saying the company negligently designed and tested the minivan latches. It awarded $12.5 million in actual damages and a whopping $250 million in punitive damages.
The award is the first sizable one against Chrysler in a long-running controversy over the safety of its popular minivans.
The younger Sergio is one of at least 37 passengers killed in crashes when the rear lift gates opened on Chrysler-made minivans, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration says.
Consumer groups want the government to order an official safety recall, forcing Chrysler to replace the rear latches on 4.3 million Chrysler, Dodge and Plymouth minivans made from 1984 to 1995.
But in 1995, government regulators agreed not to seek a recall. Instead, they allowed Chrysler, starting in September 1995, to notify owners that stronger replacement latches would be available for free at dealerships. Later models came equipped with the stronger latches.
So far under the “service campaign,” Chrysler says, 60 percent or 2.6 million of the minivans have been fixed. But Ditlow said a typical recall would have reached 430,000 more owners. A total of 1.3 million minivans remain unfixed.
At the time, Chrysler’s lawyers hoped the agreement would bolster its case that the minivans didn’t have a safety flaw and would help it in about 20 lawsuits.
That strategy backfired Wednesday, Ditlow said. “Once there’s a recall, there’s no reason for punitive damages,” he said.