BUY THEM BACK: Fiat Chrysler might have to buy back Jeeps from customers after failing to follow recall laws. Image: AP / Aaron Favila
WASHINGTON, DC - Fiat Chrysler will soon be punished for failing to obey the law in 23 recalls involving more than 11-million vehicles, the nation's top auto safety regulator has said.
Mark Rosekind, administrator of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, wouldn't on Thursday (July 2 2015) say what action the agency would take until after a public comment period closes on July 17.
Rosekind spoke after a two-hour public hearing in Washington on Fiat Chrysler's recall performance that featured agency officials detailing an alarming litany of failures to notify customers of recalls, delays in making and distributing repair parts and, in some cases, failing to come up with repairs to fix the problems. Some of the recalls date back to 2013 and Rosekind said more allegations against the company could be added.
"The evidence seems very straightforward," Rosekind said. "There's a pattern that's been going on for some time."
Rosekind said a number of options for agency action were "on the table," among them fines against the company and requiring it to buy back vehicles subject to recall. The NHTSA can fine automakers a maximum equivalent of R430-million per infraction. It's unlikely, though, that the company would face the top fine in all 23 recalls.
Rosekind told reporters that Fiat Chrysler needed to follow the law, meeting deadlines to notify owners and distribute parts. Not doing so would put people at risk. The agency said it would probably act by the end of July.
The company, in testimony on Thursday, didn't dispute any NHTSA allegation. Scott Kunselman, Fiat Chrysler's recently appointed head of vehicle safety, said it was changing the way it managed safety to follow the industry's best practices. The safety system, he said, has been reorganised with added personnel.
He now reports directly to CEO Sergio Marchionne. Previously the person in his position was three rungs down the organisation chart from the chief executive, he said.
Kunselman told the agency: "We've learned from our mistakes and mis-steps," .
Much of the hearing's testimony focused on a recall of 1.56-million older Jeeps whose petrol tank was slung behind the rear axle and so vulnerable to puncture in a rear crash. At least 75 people have died in fires involving these Jeeps, according to NHTSA.
The company says the Jeeps were as or safer than comparable vehicles built around the same time. The recall fix requires a trailer hitch to protect such tanks in low-speed crashes.
Todd Anderson of Connecticut, who lost his 17-year-old son when the family's 1998 Jeep Grand Cherokee was rear-ended and exploded, asked the agency to order Fiat Chrysler to buy back the recalled Jeeps to get them off the road.
Anderson said the crash that killed Skyler Justice Anderson-Coughlin happened in November 2013, five months after the Jeep recall was announced. He was unaware of the recall until getting a notice in the mail from Fiat Chrysler the following May or June 2014 and said the notice should have been sent sooner.
"If I had received the notification, my son would be alive today," he said.
Anderson said he has hired lawyers and was contemplating a law suit over the crash, which occurred in Massachusetts.
The 23 recalls involved problems as serious as rear-mounted petrol tanks that could leak and cause fire in a crash, crash bags that could inflate with too much force and spew shrapnel, and ignition switches that could shut off, causing engines to stall. In one recall, a recommended fix didn't work.
In one case, Fiat Chrysler delayed distribution of parts to fix a nut that could loosen from Ram truck driveshafts, said Scott Yon, chief of vehicle integrity for NHTSA. If the nuts came loose, the shaft could fall off the truck and the wheels lock. Owners were notified that parts were available during the third quarter of 2013 but the agency kept receiving numerous complaints, he said.
"Although Chrysler reported that it had completed sending notices to owners in November of 2013 telling them parts were available and repairs could be completed the NHTSA continued to receive owners' complaints that parts could not be found," Yon said.