PHOENIX – The family of a little girl who died when her mother’s car was reversing a jeep on the Phoenix Highway could sue the SUV manufacturer for unlawful death because it did not have automatic emergency braking devices that were available as additional equipment, the Arizona Supreme Court ruled Tuesday.
The court rejected the arguments of the lawyers of the parent company Jeep Fiat Chrysler Automobiles US that the decision of the National Road Safety Administration not to require devices prevented a state lawsuit.
The decision, written by Judge Bill Montgomery, also overturns a similar decision from 2019, which argued that automakers are insured against such lawsuits because of a federal agency decision not to require technology.
The accident on August 15, 2015 killed 4-year-old Vivian Varela, who was driving in the back seat of his mother’s Lexus sedan. According to one of her lawyers, Brent Gelfi, Melissa Varela was preparing to leave the Loop 101 highway in northern Phoenix when traffic stopped because an ambulance blocked the convention.
The nurse, who had just finished her shift at a nearby hospital, was also about to leave, but did not notice the stopped movement until it was too late. Her Jeep Grand Cherokee crashed into the back of a Lexus, killing Vivian and injuring her mother.
Vivian was the only child of Melissa and her husband Mitchell, who at the time lived on the Phoenix subway but now lives in Franklin, Wisconsin.
Gelfi said the 2014 jeep could have been equipped with a version of Fiat Chrysler’s automatic emergency braking, but it was only included as an option with an upgrade package that added $ 10,000 to its value.
“Chrysler did what they had a security system studied by the American Insurance Institute, which claims it will prevent 60% of rear-end collisions,” Gelfi said. “It seriously changes the game in terms of car crashes.”
He said automakers are incredibly slow to introduce accident prevention technology, noting how automakers have adopted airbags and other safety features to protect passengers. The goods cost the carmakers about $ 100.
“And the real tragedy here is that they choose,” Gelfi said. “They take the safety function and combine it with the sunroof, leather seats and hazardous functions. That way, you can only get a security feature if you buy an improved finish. ”
In a statement, Fiat Chrysler Automobiles expressed its condolences to the Varel family “for the losses and other injuries resulting from this horrific high-speed collision caused by an inattentive driver.”
“While we disagree with the Arizona Supreme Court’s ruling on preventive defense, we look forward to submitting our other arguments to the trial court,” the statement said.
The company noted that the hired Jeep Grand Cherokee met all current federal safety standards, and said that although automatic emergency braking, known as AEB, is a new promising technology, it cannot prevent all accidents.
“Lawsuits trying to impose an autonomous function on all vehicles may inadvertently delay the development of better versions as technology matures,” the company said.
Federal regulators have not prescribed equipment. The Supreme Court ruling noted that the Federal Security Agency decided to abandon the mandate for several reasons, including because it wanted to stimulate innovation and because automakers were emulating the technology themselves.
“Because the administrative records reflect federal policies regarding AEB technology, the agency encourages AEB innovations and wants them to be deployed more widely and sooner rather than later,” Montgomery wrote.
The case is now being returned to the court of first instance if Fiat Chrysler does not appeal to the US Supreme Court. Expert witnesses are gathered and testimony is taken, so a trial can take place quickly.
Gelfi, Varela’s lawyer, called the refusal of carmakers everywhere to accept automatic emergency braking “an important and fundamental problem for the country.”
He said the simulation conducted by experts determined that if Chrysler’s emergency braking version had been installed on the Jeep, Vivian would not have died.
“It would have automatically slowed down this car, and this accident would have been a pure blunder,” Gelfi said.
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