Last week I wrote about the shocking and indefensible position of some car companies and car dealers that rental vehicles should be allowed to remain on the road, and even resold, while they are subject to recall notices but not yet repaired. This week has brought more surprising and disappointing auto recall news for all of us who care about consumer safety.
According to Bloomberg News, Chrysler has taken the highly “unusual decision to buck what would be one of the largest US auto recalls.” The company rejected a request by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) “to recall 2.7 million Jeep Grand Cherokee and Liberty sport-utility vehicles made over 15 model years.” NHSTA has linked the vehicles, reported by Autoweek as the 1993-2004 Grand Cherokee and the 2002-07 Liberty, to “51 deaths in fires after rear-end collisions,” according to Bloomberg.
Chrysler’s move is an unsettling reminder of something that is often forgotten when recalls are discussed: while the government does have the authority to order product recalls in the name of consumer safety is almost never uses it. Virtually all recalls, whether of vehicles through the NHSTA or of consumer products via the Consumer Product Safety Commission, are, legally speaking, voluntary in nature and are negotiated by the government with manufacturers.
While it is true that Chrysler, in rejecting the huge Jeep recall, also agreed to a less sweeping recall of other vehicles (Jeep Wranglers, Compass and Patriot models totaling about 630,000 vehicles worldwide), the fact that it feels so confident in defying a government safety request says a lot about the balance of power between this private company and the government entity that is supposed to be regulating it in the public interest. According to Bloomberg, Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood has sent Chrysler a letter asking the company to explain its actions. Chrysler has until June 18 to reply.
As a Portland consumer protection and safety attorney this entire situation both saddens and angers me. More importantly, however, it also serves as a reminder of the important role our legal system plays in holding irresponsible companies accountable for their actions. One of the reasons why we have a strong, independent judiciary here in Oregon and in the United States is to provide ordinary citizens with a way to obtain justice when the government can’t (or, in this case, won’t) fight for it on their behalf. This recall drama bears watching over the next few weeks. In the meantime, readers are well-advised to keep an eye on the federal website Recall.gov to see which vehicles the government thinks are unsafe – and on reliable news sources to see which vehicles the car companies are against assuming responsibility for.