ATHENS, Ga. (AP) — After a family was awarded $40 million in the death of a 4-year-old boy in a Jeep fire, Fiat Chrysler asked the Georgia Supreme Court for a new trial or for the award to be reduced.
Remington "Remi" Walden died in 2012 after a Jeep Grand Cherokee he was riding in was hit from behind and burst into flames. The gas tank was mounted behind the rear axle, leaving it vulnerable in a crash. The boy's parents sued, arguing that the rear-mounted fuel tank in the 1999-model vehicle 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 maintained the Jeep's fuel system met federal safety standards and did not pose an unreasonable safety risk. A jury in 2015 awarded $150 million to Remi's family: $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 agreed to that amount.
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, which heard arguments Tuesday in a special session at the University of Georgia's law school in Athens.
The parents' lawyers had asked during trial for a confirmation of the CEO's annual pay. The company's lawyers objected, 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.
The CEO's pay was improperly used to make a direct statement about the company's wealth, and information about the company's wealth cannot be used, Tom Dupree, an attorney for the company, argued before the high court. He said allowing it was so prejudicial that the company is entitled to a new trial.
Frank Lowrey, an attorney for the parents, said the CEO's pay was relevant because he had personally declared that Jeep model safe and also because his dependence on the company for his compensation made him biased in the company's favor. "The jury is entitled to consider the fact that he is dependent on Chrysler for tens of millions of dollars in compensation a year when assessing is this guy telling the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth," Lowrey argued.
The justices' questions focused on when the company's attorneys had raised objections to the use of the CEO's salary and what specific objections were made. Citing past cases, Dupree called the award excessive. James Butler Jr., another attorney for the parents, argued that the Court of Appeals took prior awards into account when it upheld the award.
At least 75 people have died in post-crash fires involving several Jeep models with rear-mounted gas tanks. The problem led to the recall of 1.56 million Grand Cherokees and Libertys to install trailer hitches to protect the tanks in low-speed crashes.
Fiat Chrysler in 2015 agreed in a deal with government safety regulators to offer $100 gift cards to entice owners of recalled Jeeps to get the trailer hitch installation. The company also agreed to offer an extra $1,000 for people trading in 1993 to 1998 Grand Cherokees for a new Fiat Chrysler vehicle.