| February 6, 2018

Stage Is Set at UGA Law School for Heated Arguments in Chrysler Case

Katheryn Hayes Tucker | Daily Report  | October 11, 2017

In the contentious litigation over a fatal Jeep gas tank explosion, oral arguments on Chrysler’s appeal of the $150 million verdict—reduced to $40 million by the trial judge—have been set for a special session of the Georgia Supreme Court to be held at the University of Georgia School of Law.

Arguments are to be heard in the law school’s Hatton Lovejoy Courtroom on the historic North Campus, starting at 10:30 a.m. on Oct. 24. The case has already yielded more than a dozen amicus briefs—some neutral and others in support of one side. Several came from business groups seeking to hold down the award, viewing the case as a test for the new court, which expanded from six to nine members at the start of this year.

The arguments will pit Chrysler’s lead appellate counsel Thomas Dupree Jr., a Washington, D.C.- based partner with Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher, against a nationally known Georgia trial lawyer, Jim Butler Jr. of Butler Wooten & Peak. Chrysler’s team includes three lawyers from Swift, Currie, McGhee & Hiers in Atlanta: Mary Diane Owens, Bradley Wolff and Terry Brantley.

Butler’s team includes other lawyers at his firm, plus his son Jeb Butler of Butler Tobin; appellate lawyers Michael Terry and Frank Lowrey of Bondurant, Mixson & Elmore; and Mercer University School of Law Dean Cathy Cox, formerly Georgia secretary of state, president of Young Harris College and before that a lawyer in the town where the case was tried.

The nine-day trial in South Georgia’s Bainbridge, before Decatur County Superior Court Judge J. Kevin Chason, took place in March and April of 2015. The jury took less than two hours to return a $150 verdict, consisting of $120 million for wrongful death and $30 million for the pain and suffering of 4-year-old Remi Walden, who died in his car seat in the back of a Jeep when it exploded after a rearend crash that did not injure either driver.

Chason later reduced the judgment to $40 million, but Chrysler appealed. The Georgia Court of Appeals upheld the judgment in November 2016. “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,” Chrysler argued in its brief filed with the Supreme Court.

Chrysler has sought to blame the driver of the other vehicle, Bryan Harrell, 32, of Brainbridge, who pleaded guilty to vehicular homicide and is now in prison. But the Butler team successfully targeted the rear-mounted Jeep gas tank design. The jury placed 99 percent of the fault on Chrysler. “Remington Walden burned to death because FCA/Chrysler 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,” Butler wrote in his brief to the Georgia Supreme Court. “The evidence proved that Chrysler had long known that mounting a gas tank behind the rear axle was dangerous.” The Walden brief said the jury determined that the company “acted with a reckless or wanton disregard for human life” and failed to warn of the hazard it created.

The case is Chrysler v. Walden, No. S17G0832.

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