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Arizona Supreme Court: Jeep can be sued over little girl’s death on Phoenix freeway

The lawsuit filed by the Varela family contends that auto manufacturers should equip new vehicles with the latest safety features standard.

PHOENIX — The Arizona Supreme Court issued a unaminous ruling Tuesday allowing the parents of a little girl to sue a major auto manufacturer for not installing safety options into lower-end models of its vehicles. 

The family said these safety features could have saved their daughter's life.

It was another hot and muggy night in north Phoenix. 2015 had been one of the most active monsoon seasons in a while and the Valley was recovering from storms that hit that day in August.

Melissa Varela was exiting Loop 101 at Cave Creek Road, with her 4-year-old daughter, Vivian, strapped in the back, middle seat.

The traffic in front of her had come to a stop.

Suddenly there was the screech of tires and a collision that rocked her car and sent her into the car in front of her. At that moment, Melissa’s whole life changed.

According to the black box in the 2014 Jeep Grand Cherokee that struck Varela’s Lexus, the driver approached Cave Creek Road traveling at 70 miles per hour and suddenly changed lanes, as if to exit at Cave Creek. The driver apparently didn’t see the stopped traffic, hit her brakes, and tried to swerve to the left, but it was too late.

The Jeep crashed into the Lexus, crumpling the back and killing Vivian.

Seven years later, Valley Attorney Brent Ghelfi says Chrysler- who owns Jeep- chose profit over safety.

“What Chrysler had done was, it had taken a safety feature- in this case, called Automatic Emergency Braking, a safety feature that helps prevent rear-end accidents - and used it only in the higher end models of this vehicle,” Ghelfi said.

The lawsuit filed by the Varela family contends that auto manufacturers, in this case, Chrysler, should equip new vehicles with the latest safety features standard.

AEB was only available on higher-priced models of the 2014 Grand Cherokee. Ghelfi says to get AEB, shoppers would have to buy it in a package with other non-safety-related upgrades, such as premium wheels or an upgraded entertainment system.

In a statement, FCA US, known colloquially as Chrysler, said the following:

"FCA US extends its deepest sympathies to the Varela family for their loss and other injuries stemming from this horrific, high-speed collision caused by an inattentive driver.  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."

The 2014 Jeep Grand Cherokee complied with all applicable Federal Motor Vehicle Safety standards. 

While automatic emergency braking is a promising new technology, it cannot prevent all crashes in every accident scenario.  

Lawsuits attempting to impose an autonomous feature on all vehicles can inadvertently stymy the development of better versions as the technology matures. 

FCA agrees with the federal government’s goal of allowing such technology to evolve so that it can be safely deployed in a manner that encourages innovation and technological advancement.

On Tuesday, March 1, 2022, The Arizona Supreme Court ruled that Varela’s lawsuit can proceed after a lower court ruled that a Federal law preempted Varela’s claims.

Making the latest safety technology a standard feature on automobiles is a cause the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety has been working on for years. Lately, they have found some success.

“We early on had pretty good evidence that Automatic Emergency Braking that helps prevent front and rear-end crashes were indeed doing that,” said David Zuby, the Chief Research Officer for IIHS. “We thought it should be standard enough that we worked with the automakers and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration to get the automakers to commit to making it standard by the 2023 model year.”

That one victory is not enough for the Varela family though. They say they are looking for real change in how automakers market their safety features. They are hoping that proven safety features become standard instead of bundled in higher-priced models of vehicles.

“Lawsuits like this one force carmakers to engage in better behavior,” Ghelfi said. “To make better decisions, so that fewer accidents like this happen and we have fewer Vivian Varela’s out there and fewer Melissa and Mitchel Verelas out there.”

There is no date set yet for a trial. Ghelfi believes, with most of the research for the lawsuit done, the process will move quickly.

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