September 25, 2022

Safety Group Seeks to Intervene in Chrysler Case

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Chrysler-HeadquartersBy Amanda Bronstad, From The National Law Journal

A federal judge is weighing whether a prominent auto safety group can intervene in a class action to obtain sealed documents about an alleged electronic defect in Chrysler vehicles.

The Center for Auto Safety, which petitioned the U.S. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) on Aug. 21 to investigate the defect, filed a motion to intervene in a case that alleges a problem in the latest version of the totally integrated power module, or TIPM, has caused 2007 to 2014 models of Chrysler vehicles to stall and have trouble starting.

The consumer group has fielded about 200 complaints from customers who have spent hundreds of thousands of dollars in repairs. Some people have also been injured in accidents, said Clarence Ditlow, executive director of the Center for Auto Safety.

The group’s access to discovery in the class action—particularly associated with a motion the plaintiffs had filed for a preliminary injunction warning customers of the defect—will support its petition filed with the NHTSA, Ditlow said. The NHTSA has until Dec. 19 to decide whether to initiate an investigation.

Michael Palese, a spokesman for Chrysler Group, which is a subsidiary of Fiat Chrysler Automobiles N.V., declined to comment.

On Monday, U.S. District Judge Dean Pregerson of the Central District of California heard arguments about the intervention motion.

The class action was brought last year on behalf of owners or lessees of various Chrysler models made from 2010 to 2014, including Jeep Grand Cherokee, Jeep Wrangler, Dodge Durango, Dodge Grand Caravan and Dodge Ram pickups, that were installed with the latest generation of TIPMs, which power electrical systems such as the steering, brakes, headlights and fuel pump. The class is limited to six states: California, Florida, Maryland, Massachusetts, Missouri and New Jersey.

A similar case was filed on Nov. 10 in U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York.

Chrysler has unsuccessfully attempted twice to dismiss the first case. In a Sept. 18 motion for preliminary injunction, the plaintiffs, armed with internal records Chrysler has been forced to produce, sought to require the automaker to inform its customers about the defect—though the exact wording of the proposed warning was redacted.

“The risk of serious injury from widespread TIPM failures and stalling is too high to justify keeping Chrysler’s customers in the dark any longer,” wrote plaintiffs attorney Eric Gibbs, a partner at San Francisco’s Girard Gibbs.

All the exhibits supporting the motion, and Chrysler’s opposition to it, were sealed. Chrysler, which has denied the existence of a defect, said such a warning would cost $2.5 million, according to court records.

Pregerson denied the preliminary injunction on Oct. 27.

The Center for Auto Safety filed its motion to intervene four days earlier. The group also sought to unseal the records associated with the injunction motion.

“Our basic argument is the public is riding at risk in these vehicles, and they need the information to know if they have a problem,” Ditlow said.

Chrysler, in a Nov. 7 response, said the sealed documents contain engineering drawings and change notices, investigation reports and communications between Chrysler and its suppliers—all of which are trade secrets. Chrysler also cast doubt on the motive of the consumer group, which it said has engaged in an “inflammatory propaganda campaign.”

“The handling of the alleged TIPM defect is best left to the court presiding over this lawsuit and the NHTSA,” wrote Chrysler attorney Rowena Santos, counsel to Thompson Coburn’s Los Angeles office.

IMAGE: Chrysler Headquarters in Auburn Hills, Michigan. Johannes Fasolt via Wikipedia

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