LegalReader.com  ·  Legal News, Analysis, & Commentary

News & Politics

Chrysler Appeals Remi Walden Verdict, Says Excessive


— August 21, 2017

Remi Walden died in a horrible vehicle fire in March, 2012. He was safely seated in the rear of a 1999 Jeep Grand Cherokee when it was struck from behind. The fuel tank, mounted behind the rear axle of the Jeep, exploded engulfing the vehicle in flames. It’s estimated that then four-year-old Remington lived for approximately one minute. The jury in the original case found that Chrysler knew the location of the fuel tank was dangerous and awarded the family $150M ($120M in compensatory damages and $30M in pain and suffering). The judge later reduced the award to $40M ($30M compensatory and $10M pain and suffering). Not content to face its responsibility, Chrysler appealed. The appellate court upheld the verdict and award. Now, Chrysler has taken its appeal to the Georgia Supreme Court.


Remi Walden died in a horrible vehicle fire in March, 2012. He was safely seated in the rear of a 1999 Jeep Grand Cherokee when it was struck from behind. The fuel tank, mounted behind the rear axle of the Jeep, exploded engulfing the vehicle in flames. It’s estimated that then four-year-old Remington lived for approximately one minute. The jury in the original case found that Chrysler knew the location of the fuel tank was dangerous and awarded the family $150M ($120M in compensatory damages and $30M in pain and suffering). The judge later reduced the award to $40M ($30M compensatory and $10M pain and suffering). Not content to face its responsibility, Chrysler appealed. The appellate court upheld the verdict and award. Now, Chrysler has taken its appeal to the Georgia Supreme Court.

From the onset of this case, Chrysler has taken a dim view of the value of a child’s life. During the original trial, Chrysler’s CEO Sergio Marchionne went on record as saying that he’s “not an engineer” and had “no way of knowing” whether his company’s products were safe. One of the company’s lawyers, Bruce Kirbo, went so far as to suggest that any pain and suffering award should be smaller as Remi died within a minute of the explosion and his suffering was “mercifully short.” Mr. Kirbo went on to say, “I’m not trying to tell you that because his pain and suffering was short, it doesn’t have value or worth.” Odd, given that that is exactly what Chrysler tried to do.

It’s no wonder, given such an obviously remorseless corporation, that the jury found for the family.

Remi Walden; image courtesy of www.dailymail.co.uk.
Remi Walden; image courtesy of www.dailymail.co.uk.

James Butler, one of the family’s lawyers, had perhaps the perfect response to the assertion that Remi’s suffering was “mercifully short.” You can watch the video here, courtesy of Courtroom View Network. Mr. Butler said, “Mr. Kirbo suggested $50,000 in pain and suffering because Remi only lived about a minute.” To illustrate to the jury just how long a minute’s worth of suffering is, Mr. Butler took a watch and held a minute’s worth of silence during closing arguments. He said, “Let’s start. We’re going to do a minute. Now. Let’s start thinking about what Remi went through.”

It was a very impactful minute.

Judge Christopher McFadden of the Georgia Court of Appeals wrote in the opinion upholding the $40M verdict, “The plaintiffs presented evidence that there is no more painful way to die. Chrysler has not shown that the trial court manifestly abused his discretion in awarding the plaintiffs $30 million for their child’s wrongful death and $10 million for his pain and suffering.”

Now comes the appeal to the Georgia Supreme Court.

Chrysler’s lawyers state that, “This case involves a $150 million personal injury award [reduced to $40M] resulting from an automobile accident. Four-year-old Remington Walden was killed when the 1999 Jeep Grand Cherokee in which he was riding was rear-ended at highway speed and caught fire. The driver of the other vehicle, Bryan Harrell, pleaded guilty to vehicular homicide and is now in prison. Even though it was undisputed that Harrell caused the accident, Plaintiffs (the parents of Remington Walden) sued Chrysler along with Harrell for wrongful death, challenging the design of the Grand Cherokee’s rear-mounted fuel tank.”

Mr. Butler states differently saying, “Remington Walden burned to death because [editor’s note: Chrysler Corporation, now FCA] placed the gas tank behind the rear axle of its Jeep. That was unnecessary: FCA stipulated that it could have located the gas tank midships, in front of the rear axle. … The evidence proved that Chrysler had long known that mounting a gas tank behind the rear axle was dangerous.”

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.”

One of Chrysler’s arguments on appeal to the state’s highest court is that, “Over Chrysler’s repeated objections, Plaintiffs introduced evidence of the compensation and benefits Chrysler paid its chairman and CEO Sergio Marchionne, despite the general rule in Georgia that ‘evidence of the wealth or worldly circumstances of a party is never admissible, unless in those exceptional cases where position or wealth is necessarily involved.’”

The company asserts, “What should have been a straightforward trial about vehicle design soon spiraled out of control, as the trial court allowed Plaintiffs to introduce evidence and make arguments that had no relevance to the issues the jury was asked to decide, but were intended to incite the jury’s passions by whipping up prejudice against a large corporate defendant and to set the stage for the verdict that followed.”

However, Mr. Butler contends that Chrysler’s evidentiary argument is impermissible under other court rules. He says that Chrysler “waived its newly-created argument that if the existence of incentive compensation was admissible, the amount was not, by failing to make that argument at trial.” The company also failed to bring up that argument during the first appeal. According to Mr. Butler, “At trial, FCA’s [Fiat Chrysler Automobiles] objection was to the entirety of the evidence, and FCA did not object separately to the amount. If any part of the evidence was admissible, it was not error to admit it all.”

Generally speaking, it is not acceptable practice to introduce new arguments or evidence at the appellate level. All evidence should be presented at the trial court level and any arguments must be preserved for appeal via timely objections. If Chrysler failed to properly object to the amount of Mr. Marchionne’s compensation at the trial level, it is highly unlikely that the state supreme court will give much weight to that argument.

At the time, Mr. Marchionne’s compensation was approximately $68M annually. The Georgia Supreme Court has decided to consider the issue of the admissibility of Mr. Marchionne’s compensation, as well as whether the Court of Appeals was wrong in “failing to consider prior awards in similar cases to determine whether the remitted award of damages was excessive.”

LegalReader will be following this appeal.

Sources:

Lawyers Trade Volleys in Appeal of $150M Chrysler Verdict
Watch the Long Minute that Counted Down to a $150M Verdict | Georgia Video Vault

Join the conversation!