·  Legal News, Analysis, & Commentary

Lawsuits & Litigation

Arizona Supreme Court Rules Family Can Sue Jeep, Fiat Chrysler Automobiles US for Wrongful Death

— March 2, 2022

The family of Vivian Varela can now sue Jeep and Fiat Chrysler Automobiles US for wrongful death, Arizona Supreme Court proclaims.

The Arizona Supreme Court recently ruled that the family of a young girl “who was killed when her mother’s car was rear-ended by a Jeep on a Phoenix freeway can sue the SUV’s manufacturer for wrongful death” because automatic emergency braking devices were not installed in the vehicle. Instead, the devices were available as optional equipment. 

Arizona Supreme Court building in downtown Phoenix
Arizona Supreme Court building in downtown Phoenix; image courtesy of davidpinter via Wikimedia Commons,

As part of the ruling, the state’s high court rejected arguments from the legal team representing Jeep parent company Fiat Chrysler Automobiles US. Lawyers for the company had tried to argue that the “National Highway Transportation Safety Administration’s decision not to require the devices pre-empted the state lawsuit.” The court ruling was written by Justice Bill Montgomery and also “overturned a similar 2019 decision that said automakers were immune to such lawsuits because of the federal agency’s decision not to require the technology.

What happened, though? What led to the lawsuit being filed in the first place? Well, according to the lawsuit, an auto accident on August 15, 2015, took the life of “4-year-old Vivian Varela, who was riding in the back seat of her mother’s Lexus sedan.” Vivian’s mother, Melissa Varela, “was preparing to take an exit from the Loop 101 freeway in north Phoenix when traffic stopped because an emergency vehicle was blocking the off-ramp,” according to Brent Ghelfi, one of the lawyers representing the family.

Unfortunately, “a nurse who had just ended her shift at a nearby hospital was also intending to take the exit but did not notice stopped traffic until it was too late.” As a result, her Jeep Grand Cherokee crashed into the back of the Varela’s Lexus. Tragically, Vivian died in the accident and her mother was injured. The young girl was Melissa and her husband’s only child. 

During the litigation process, Ghelfi argued that the “2014 Jeep could have been equipped with Fiat Chrysler’s version of automatic emergency braking but it was only included as an option with a package upgrade that added $10,000 to its price.” He added:

“What Chrysler did was they had a safety system that the Insurance Institute of America has studied that says it will prevent 60% of rear-end collisions… It’s a massive game-changer in terms of automobile collisions.”

He also noted that “automakers have been incredibly slow to adopt the crash-prevention technology while noting how automakers have adopted airbags and other safety features to protect occupants. The item costs automakers about $100.” He stated:

“And the real tragedy here is the option it…They take a safety feature and they bundle it together with a moonroof and leather seats and non-safety features. So you can only get the safety feature if you buy the upgraded trim level.”

Ghelfi also called out automakers’ failure to universally adopt automatic emergency braking and said the matter is “a nationally important and fundamental issue.” He added:

“Modeling done by experts determined that if Chrysler’s version of emergency braking had been installed on the Jeep, Vivian would not have died…It would have automatically braked that car, and this accident would have been a clean miss…At worst it would have been a fender bender, and most likely it would have been a clean miss.”

When commenting on the court’s decision, Fiat Chrysler Automobiles expressed its sympathies to the Varela family and stated:

“While we disagree with the Arizona Supreme Court’s ruling on the preemption defense, we look forward to presenting our other defenses to the trial court.”


Arizona Supreme Court: Jeep can be sued over girl’s death

Supreme Court rules Jeep can be sued over girl’s death

Join the conversation!