Vicki Hill’s 2007 Jeep Liberty was rear-ended on Monday, August 28, 2017. Ms. Hill, an Elyria, Ohio resident, was stopped at a traffic light on her way to work when her vehicle was struck from behind by a 2003 Buick Century, driven by Kristi Fitch. Elyria police Captain Phil Hammonds said that Ms. Hill’s vehicle was on fire when officers arrived on the scene.
The fire was strong enough that it prevented first responders from rescuing Ms. Hill. The 58-year-old woman died because of the accident. Ms. Fitch was rescued from her vehicle. Originally, Ms. Fitch was ticketed for “suspicion of driving under the influence of drugs or alcohol.” Those charges were dropped at the request of the Lorain County Prosecutor’s Office. Capt. Hammonds added that there is a possibility that excessive speed was a factor in the accident, but didn’t want to comment further pending more investigation.
Ms. Hill is the latest fatality involving Jeep vehicles and fuel tanks that ignite in rear-end crashes. Her tragic death has sparked renewed debate as to whether the 2013 recall repair was sufficient to protect American drivers and their passengers.
In 2013, Fiat Chrysler (FCA) agreed to install trailer hitches on Jeep vehicles after the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) determined that the fuel tanks posed a risk of leaking and igniting in rear-end crashes. The trailer hitches were supposed to provide protection against such occurrences. The fuel tanks on the affected models were placed between the vehicles’ bumper and rear suspension.
The voluntary recall/repair affected 1.56M 2002-2007 Jeep Liberty and 1993-1998 Jeep Grand Cherokee SUVs. NHTSA believes that over 50 deaths are connected to the igniting fuel tank issue. FCA asserts that the recalled vehicles are safe and compliant with federal mandates. Despite this assertion, the company sent NHTSA a letter in 2013 citing five Jeep Liberty and 21 Jeep Grand Cherokee fatalities.
For its part, NHTSA closed the investigation in November 2014 once FCA agreed to the recall. The Agency issued a memo stating in part that the trailer hitch installation resulted in “incremental safety benefits in certain low and moderate speed crash incidents.” However, the memo also stated that the trailer hitches “will not necessarily be effective in the most severe crashes.”
FCA’s records show that Ms. Hill’s Jeep Liberty did, in fact, have the trailer hitch “fix.”
Jason Levine, the executive director of the Center for Auto Safety (CAS), said, “Here is what appears to be a tragic incident that highlights the exact problems we were concerned about 18 months ago. Our fear then and our fear today remains to be that the fix is not sufficient.” The CAS has been asking NHTSA to reopen the investigation of the Jeep fires since “at least February 2016.”
The Agency has yet to agree to that request. It recently issued a statement saying that it “will review available information and take action as appropriate.”
FCA spokesperson Eric Mayne said via email that FCA “extends its deepest sympathies to those affected by this tragedy.” However, Mr. Mayne added, “The 2007 Jeep Liberty meets or exceeds all applicable federal safety standards.” These standards, he continued, include “those that test fuel-system integrity in rear impacts.”
Ms. Hill’s daughter, Takori Brown, said, “We’re just shocked. She was so kind, she was so funny. She was a private person but when it came to her family she was the life of the party.”
As published in a previous article on this site, “In a comment to an article published by Daily Report Online, vehicle safety advocate Louis Lombardo wrote, ‘The laws of physics show a gas tank behind the rear axle will result in horrible but preventable deaths and injuries. The laws of economics show that corporations will not do the morally right thing unless and until money is valued less than people. The laws of Justice show that the people need to be protected from corporate powers.’”
These words ring especially true considering Ms. Hill’s tragic demise.