On Sunday, June 19, 2016, “Star Trek” actor Anton Yelchin died after his 2015 Jeep Grand Cherokee rolled down his driveway and pinned him between his mailbox and the security gate. According to recent news reports, Anton Yelchin had exited his 2015 Jeep Grand Cherokee and was standing behind it when it started to roll backwards down his steep driveway. While investigations of the incident are only beginning, early indications point to his vehicle’s gear shifter as a possible cause.
In April, the manufacturer of Jeep, Fiat Chrysler, announced a recall of over one million vehicles, including the 2015 Jeep Grand Cherokee. The recall came about after multiple drivers complained that the confusing gear shifter made it difficult to know whether the vehicle was in park. This confusion led some drivers to unknowingly exit their vehicle while the vehicle remained in gear rather than in park, which presented an obvious danger for any person outside of the vehicle as well as passengers who may have remained in the vehicle.
Although investigations are still on-going, this appears to be yet another devastating reminder of how critical it is for vehicle manufacturers to make their vehicles in a safe and reasonable manner. As shown by the need for the recall, the design of the gear shifter is a safety hazard because it creates confusion as to whether the vehicle is in park. In addition to having to recall the vehicles, Fiat Chrysler could be subject to liability for injuries and wrongful deaths caused by the gear shifter. Such liability may arise solely from the negligent design of the gear shifter itself. Here are a few additional theories under which Fiat Chrysler could face liability for the wrongful death of Anton Yelchin and any other individual who have been injured or killed as a result of the gear shifter:
Manufactures are required to adequately test their vehicles prior to releasing them for sale to the general public. The extent and scope of the testing and inspections actually conducted on the 2015 Jeep Grand Cherokee, as well as the findings of these tests, will be thoroughly examined to determine whether Fiat Chrysler is liable for failing to properly test and inspect the vehicle. In addition, manufactures are required to provide adequate warnings and instructions about the vehicle. The key facts to be assessed here will be the steps taken and method used to warn drivers about the problematic gear shifter. Was there a clear warning label inside the vehicle explaining the possible dangers? If so, was it visibly printed on or near the gear shifter or was the warning buried in the fine print of the instruction manual? Finally, under circumstances such as these, manufactures are required to properly and timely issue a recall notice. Liability surrounding the recall notice may depend on the length of the time frame between when Fiat Chrysler first became aware of the dangerous gear shifter versus when it finally decided to issue a recall notice. Also, what steps did Fiat Chrysler take to assure the public received notice of the dangers in a timely and appropriate manner? Did Anton Yelchin ever receive such notice?
These questions and more will hopefully be answered in the coming months and will help to clarify what could have been done to prevent such a tragic death. In closing, we offer our deepest condolences to the family and friends of Anton Yelchin.