(Adds comments from plaintiffs’ lawyer, auto safety group)
By Jessica Dye
NEW YORK, April 2 (Reuters) - A U.S. jury in Georgia awarded on Thursday $150 million to a family that sued Chrysler Group LLC for the 2012 death of their 4-year-old in a crash involving a 1999 Jeep Grand Cherokee with a rear fuel tank.
Following a nearly two-week trial in Decatur County, Georgia, jurors said Chrysler, a unit of Fiat Chrysler Automobiles, was liable for the death of Remington Walden and failed to warn customers that the tank’s position could increase the risk of fire in a rear-end crash.
Fiat Chrysler spokesman Michael Palese said the company was disappointed with the verdict and will consider appealing.
Chrysler previously recalled 1.56 million Jeep SUVs with rear fuel tanks, although the 1999 Jeep Grand Cherokee in which Walden was riding was not among them.
The jury, which began deliberating Thursday afternoon, said Chrysler acted with “reckless and wanton disregard” and ordered it to pay 99 percent of the damages. The driver of the vehicle that rear-ended the Grand Cherokee was responsible for the other 1 percent.
Walden was killed when the Jeep he was riding in was struck from behind, rupturing the fuel tank and creating an “inferno,” according to Jim Butler, a lawyer for the family. Had the fuel tank been placed farther forward on the vehicle, he said, it would have been better protected.
Butler said Thursday his clients were pleased with the verdict.
Concerns over fuel-tank placement prompted Chrysler to announce in 2013 that it would recall 1993-1998 Jeep Grand Cherokees, along with the Jeep Libertys from model years 2002-2007. The company also said it would conduct a “customer satisfaction campaign” for 1999-2004 Jeep Grand Cherokees.
The announcement came after Chrysler initially denied there was a safety issue. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) has linked more than 50 deaths to the fuel-tank issues.
Chrysler’s lawyers said at trial that the fire did not cause Walden’s death and blamed the driver of the other vehicle. Fiat Chrysler Chief Executive Officer Sergio Marchionne, whose pre-recorded testimony was played during trial, said that regulators never found a defect in the 1999 Jeep Grand Cherokee and that there was no evidence the vehicle was dangerous. Reuters viewed the proceedings on Courtroom View Network.
Clarence Ditlow of the Center for Auto Safety said in a statement the verdict should prompt NHTSA to reopen its investigation into Jeep fuel-tank fires. (Reporting by Jessica Dye; Editing by Alexia Garamfalvi, Chris Reese, Steve Orlofsky and Lisa Shumaker)