Fiat Chrysler sued over actor's death

Actor Anton Yelchin was pinned by roll-away 2015 Jeep Grand Cherokee

Published: August 2, 2016, 5:30 PM
Updated: November 21, 2021, 3:25 PM

2015 Grand Cherokee shifter

The parents of Star Trek actor Anton Yelchin are suing Fiat Chrysler Automobiles (FCA) over the death of their son, who was killed when his 2015 Jeep Grand Cherokee rolled back on the steep driveway of his home and pinned him against a brick gate post.

Around the time of Yelchin’s death, FCA had announced a recall on the 2014-2015 Grand Cherokee concerning the electronic transmission that had some instances of owners not properly putting the car in park when exiting, and having the vehicle roll away, resulting in some injuries.

On April 25, 2016, FCA announced a recall of 1.1 million vehicles (also including Dodge Charger and Chrysler 300 sedans) to address a problem with the automatic transmission shifter. The lever looks like the traditional console mounted shifter but works like a toggle with the handle moved to electronically select a gear, but the lever always returns to a centred position.

The driver is alerted to the gear position through lit symbols in various locations such as the handle and the instrument panel, and if it is left in gear, warning chimes are sounded. If the movement is not enough to engage the gear, such as Park, and the lever returns to the centred position, the car could remain in gear or shift to neutral without the driver being aware of it.

When the driver takes his foot off the brake pedal and exits the vehicle, it could roll away if it is parked on a slope.

The cause of the injuries was attributed to driver error as investigations turned up no mechanical or electrical failures, but the company issued the recall to address movement of the lever and to enhance audible and visual warnings.

The previous generation Grand Cherokee to Yelchin’s had a gated shifter on the centre console, and the successor has a different style of shifter with gear position again changing depending on the driver’s selection.

According to a document filed with the US’s National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), the recall was to begin June 24, 2016. Yelchin was killed June 19. He had received a preliminary notice in the middle of May and was told he’d be notified when a fix for his vehicle was ready. Another notice announcing a software fix was reportedly received in the mail a week after his death.

A class action was launched June 23 in a Los Angeles court, prominently citing the actor’s death and claiming the company was not doing enough to address the flaw with the shift mechanism, saying “There is no tactile or position feedback to the operator as to whether the car has actually been placed into the safe-to-exit ‘park’ gear. And there is no safety override that automatically puts the car in ‘park’ if the driver’s door is open and pressure is taken off the foot brake.”

The wrongful-death and product-liability lawsuit brought by Yelchin’s parents contends the shifter is poorly designed, leading to a defect directly responsible for their son’s suffocation death after he was trapped between the vehicle and the brick structure.

The suit document does not specify damages.