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Car Fires and Fuel Tank Explosions Remain an Ongoing National Concern

Todd A. Walburg
Lieff, Cabraser, Heimann & Bernstein, LLP - San Francisco Office

August 27, 2014

Previously published on August 15, 2014

According to the U.S. Fire Administration's National Fire Incident Reporting System, "from 2008 to 2010, an estimated 194,000 highway vehicle fires occurred in the United States each year resulting in an average of approximately 300 deaths, 1,250 injuries and $1.1 billion in property loss."

Too many automobile accidents result in vehicle gas tank fires and/or fuel tank explosions. The design of a vehicle should ensure consumers' protection in case of an accident as the legal responsibility of automotive manufacturers. Given the ongoing pattern of vehicle fires and gas tank explosions in collision accidents, more attention should be focused on the model and placement of the fuel tank in cars, trucks, and SUVs to prevent fatal fires and explosions on the roadway.

Fuel tank defects, which can still be found in vehicles sold nationwide today, include:

  • The location of the tank of the vehicle;
  • The material from which the tank is constructed;
  • The actual construction of the tank like improper welding; and
  • The failure to adequately shield the tank to ensure it is not crushed following an accident.

Injured drivers and passengers, and the families of loved ones who have died in these vehicle fire accidents have brought claims against automobile manufacturers in gas tank explosion and accident lawsuits.

Tragically, "automobile fires are the single largest cause of death among all consumer goods sold in the United States," according to a report by Marty Ahrens of the National Fire Protection Association.

Here are a few notable vehicle fire investigations:

General Motors' Pickup Trucks

From 1973 through 2009, over 2,000 people died in vehicle fire accidents involving General Motors trucks with a side-saddle fuel tank design. Over 10 million trucks, including all 1973-1987 full-size pickups and cab-chassis trucks (those without beds) and some 1988-1991 dual cab or RV chassis trucks, were installed with the saddlebag fuel tank, which were located outside the frame rail. GM engineers expressed concern with this placement of the fuel tank, as there was a high probability of tank leakage upon impact. Though the automotive company knew of this risk, they went ahead with production. GM would later be faced with numerous death and injury lawsuits from fires that occurred in the pickup trucks due to the problematic side-saddle fuel tank.

Jeep Liberty and Grand Cherokee

From 2010-2013, there were federal investigations on rear-impact gas tank fires that occurred in Jeep sport-utility vehicles. The parent company, Chrysler Group LLC, believed its cars were already safe for consumers to drive; however, in June 2013, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) wanted Chrysler to recall 2.7 million Jeep Grand Cherokees and Libertys because the vehicle's gas tank, set behind the rear axle and bumper made of cheap plastic, was vulnerable to fire risks. The automotive company opted to recall only 1.6 million of these vehicles after it initially ignored the government's recall request. In order to fulfill NHTSA's request, Chrysler fixed the problem by installing trailer hitches for its vehicles, model year 1992-1998 Grand Cherokees and 2002-2007 Jeep Libertys. But it was later found that this trailer hitch fix proved to be useless in high-speed rear-impact collisions.

These past tragic occurrences in automotive design should guide vehicle manufacturers and automakers to optimize safety and ensure that all vehicles are designed to prevent gas tank explosions and vehicle fires.


The views expressed in this document are solely the views of the author and not Martindale-Hubbell. This document is intended for informational purposes only and is not legal advice or a substitute for consultation with a licensed legal professional in a particular case or circumstance.

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