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New fatality in rear-ended Jeep may show problem with recall

In 2013, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration agreed to a recall fix involving several older Jeep Liberty and Grand Cherokee models. According to safety advocates, that fix was insufficient. Now, a woman is dead after her Jeep Liberty caught fire after being rear-ended at an intersection.

NHTSA has linked over 50 deaths to an issue with the two Jeep models. The problem, the agency concluded, was that the fuel tanks were vulnerable to leaks after rear-end collisions because the tanks were mounted between the bumper and rear suspension of the vehicles. Fiat Chrysler, Jeep's parent company, claims there is no defect and that the vehicles meet all federal safety requirements.

The 2013 recall involved 1.56 million vehicles. Those included Jeep Liberty SUVs from the model years 2002-2007 and Jeep Grand Cherokees from the model years 1993-1998. The recall fix was to install a trailer hitch to protect the vulnerable fuel tanks.

Even at the time, however, NHTSA did not believe the added trailer hitches would protect the gas tanks in serious accidents. When it closed the investigation in 2014, an internal memo concluded that the added hitch only provided "incremental safety benefits in certain low and moderate speed crash incidents" and would "not necessarily be effective in the most severe crashes."

It is too early to tell if the latest fatality could be considered among the "most severe crashes." According to Bloomberg News, the woman's Jeep Liberty was struck from behind while stopped at a traffic signal. Fuel from the Jeep caught fire, according to the local police department. Excessive speed is suspected but the investigation is too fresh for a conclusion.

The advocacy group Center for Auto Safety has been asking NHTSA to reopen its Jeep investigation since February 2016 or earlier.

"Here is what appears to be a tragic incident that highlights the exact problems we were concerned about 18 months ago," said the group's executive director. "Our fear then and our fear today remains to be that the fix is not sufficient."

If you or a loved one has been involved in an accident in which fuel from a Jeep caught fire, consider contacting an attorney to discuss your rights and options.

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