Jeep owners in recall limbo

Des Toups


Managing Editor

Jeep grilleIf you are a Jeep owner, the high-profile shoving match between Chrysler Group and a federal auto safety regulator over a massive potential recall is far more than a bureaucratic curiosity.

At issue is the fire risk posed by gas tanks behind the rear axle in 2.7 million Jeep sport-utilities. The National Highway Transportation Safety Administration (NHTSA) has asked Chrysler to voluntarily install measures to prevent fuel leaks if the car is hit from the rear. The agency says 51 people have died in car fires stemming from the defective gas tank design.

On Tuesday, Chrysler refused. It says the Jeeps are no more prone to fires than similar vehicles and that they meet or exceed safety standards in place when they were built.

Potentially facing recall are the Jeep Grand Cherokee, from 1993 to 2004 model years, and the Jeep Liberty, from 2002 to 2007. Newer versions of both vehicles have different gas tank locations.

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Almost all safety recalls are voluntary; occasionally NHTSA asks courts to order the manufacturer to initiate a recall. Only rarely do automakers fight the process -- and the last to do so successfully was Chrysler, back in the mid-1990s.

"Unfortunately, consumers with problematic Jeeps are in limbo,” says Edmunds.com senior analyst Michelle Krebs. “They will have to wait for the process to play out."

Should safety regulators prevail, ordering a recall, Chrysler would be required to contact owners and remedy the problem at no charge. That could involve something as simple as installation of a plastic shield or a longer fuel filler hose.

Don’t ignore the letters. Owners who fail to respond to recall notices could be held at least partially responsible for damages resulting from a later accident caused by the defective parts, says Penny Gusner, CarInsurance.com consumer analyst. (You can check for open recalls on any vehicle at Safercar.gov.)

Insurance companies, in the wake of a recall, could try to recoup some of the money paid out in claims involving Jeeps. They would have to prove that the vehicles were used as intended, in unmodified form, and that the defect led to the damages.  If the insurers are successful, Gusner says, some owners could get their collision or comprehensive deductibles back.

If Chrysler wins, the vehicles would not be recalled. Insurance claims -- even involving a gas tank leak -- would be handled like those from any other car accident or fire.  (See “My car is on fire. What now?”)

A Chrysler victory in the matter would not prevent a Jeep owner from taking the company to court for damages he or she believes are traceable to the gas tank design -- but the odds of success would be longer if a court had already sided with the company.

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