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Family to sue over recalled Jeep

by Bill Cawthon on

Attorneys for a Ferndale, Michigan family said they will file a lawsuit against Fiat Chrysler in November.  Their action will take place a year after a November 11, 2014 crash which killed 23-year old Kayla White, who was eight months pregnant. Her 2003 Jeep Liberty was hit by a distracted driver in a 2002 Cadillac STS on the John C. Lodge Expressway.


Ms. White had slowed for traffic when her Jeep was hit from behind, striking two cars and then flipping over; the fuel tank ruptured, starting a fire, which, via burns and smoke inhalation, was the cause of her death.

Clarence Heath, 70, of Beverly Hills, Michigan, was charged with causing the crash in February of this year.  Oakland County Prosecutor Jessica Cooper said, “It was just a horrid accident and carelessness. He wasn’t on the phone. He wasn’t speeding. He just wasn’t paying attention.”

Mr. Heath pled guilty to a misdemeanor traffic violation involving death. He faces up to a year in jail and a $2,000 fine.

Ms. White’s 2003 Jeep Liberty was recalled to install a trailer hitch which was to add protection to the fuel tank in low-speed collisions (the speed limit on the Lodge Expressway is 55 mph).  Letters were sent to owners beginning in August 2014. A Chrysler spokesman said that every customer had received the letter by the end of September, but Ms. White’s Jeep  did not have the trailer hitch installed.

Gerald Thurswell, a wrongful-death attorney representing the White family, said he did not know if the family was aware of the recall; he was engaged by the family to sue Fiat Chrysler less than three days after the crash, and said that the Jeep was responsible for Kayla Whites’ death despite Mr. Heath’s actions.

The suit was announced last November, but filing was delayed to allow a decision in the recent wrongful death case in Georgia, in which the jury awarded the family of Remington Walden $150 million. The driver that caused the crash in that case was sentenced to eight years in prison for vehicular manslaughter, but the jury determined he was only 1% liable for the boy’s death. FCA US is appealing the verdict, since they were unable to present relevant evidence due to a quirk in Georgia law.

Material from the Detroit Free Press, Detroit News and the state of Michigan was used in researching this article.

Illustration: Bill Cawthon for Allpar © 2015 Allpar LLC.

Bill Cawthon grew up in the auto industry in the 1950s. His Dad worked for Chrysler and Bill spent a number of Saturdays down on the plant floor at Dodge Main in Hamtramck. Bill is also the U.S. market correspondent for, a British auto industry publication, and a member of the Texas Auto Writers Association, which has named the Jeep Grand Cherokee the “SUV of Texas” several times and named the Ram 1500 as the “Truck of Texas” two years running.

Bill has owned five Plymouths (including the only 1962 “Texan”), one Dodge and one Chrysler and is still trying to figure out how to justify a Wrangler. He also has owned at least one of every 1:87 scale model of a Chrysler product. You can reach him directly at (206) 888-7324 or by using the form.

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