Did design play part in fires? Part 1

RALEIGH The data doesn't reveal the exact cause of the fires, but almost 3 million of the Grand Cherokees in question were made between 1993 and 2004 - many are still on the road today.

Grand Cherokees made during that period had their plastic gas tanks placed in the rear of the vehicle. Critics say that position made it unnecessarily vulnerable in certain types of accidents.

One of the fiery accidents happened on February 24th, 2007. 49-year-old mother of two Susan Kline was driving alone on a northern New Jersey highway. According to police reports, witnesses said she slowed down to avoid a car backing-up because the driver missed an exit and was rear-ended. Her 1996 Grand Cherokee burst into flames.

"Imagine somebody you've been with, that you've loved dearly for 33 years, being burned to death. It's just not a good picture," her husband Tom told Eyewitness News investigative reporter Steve Daniels.

Tom Kline is now raising his children without their mother.

Susan Kline's remains were found in the passenger seat. She died trying to escape the flames.

"The whole accident, what happened and how it happened, and the result of what happened, is just horrific," said Tom.

Paul Sheridan was a manager at Chrysler for 11years before - he says - he was fired for publicly criticizing the automaker on safety issues. He often testifies against the company and was planning to in the Kline case.

Chrysler told Eyewitness News that it views Sheridan as a “whistleblower for hire” who's not an engineer and had no involvement in developing or testing the Jeep Grand Cherokee.

Sheridan says the minivan that hit Kline's Grand Cherokee struck it where the fuel tank was located. He claims that caused an explosion in a crash that should not have been deadly.

"She would have survived. She would have gone home that night," he offered.

"Do you blame this design?" asked Daniels.

"Oh, this design is a fundamental safety defect. No question about it," Sheridan responded.

Sheridan says because the plastic fuel tank is in the rear of the Jeep - and unprotected in some models - a vehicle that hits it from behind and slides under the bumper could tear the tank open.

"You have a situation where the gas, the raw gas, is sloshing into the interior of the vehicle and coating everything with gasoline," he explained.

"[It] seems like common sense that you wouldn't put a fuel tank in the crush zone," said Daniels.

"Yes it does from a safety point of view," said Sheridan.

Kline's death is not the only one linked to a fiery Jeep Grand Cherokee accident. At ABC 11's request, the Center for Auto Safety analyzed data gathered by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. It says it found more than 60 deaths in accidents involving fires or explosions and GrandCherokees manufactured between 1993 and 2004.

They include an incident in September, 1999 when a man in Long Island, New York suffered third-degree burns over more than 80 percent of his body when a Toyota hit the rear of a 1997 Grand Cherokee. According to police reports, eyewitnesses said the SUV exploded in a fireball that spread to the Toyota. The man in the Cherokee died shortly after the accident.

In October 2001, the Florida owner of a 1995 Grand Cherokee was badly burned when he was rear-ended by a car travelling at only 25 miles per hour. His lawyer said Chrysler settled a civil lawsuit in the case for an undisclosed amount of money and the Cherokee owner signed a confidentiality agreement.

Just this July, a bus rear-ended a 2004 Grand Cherokee in Fort Worth, Texas. The SUV burst into flames.

Chrysler told us it rejects the Center for Auto Safety analysis of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration data - saying it "does not contain all relevant accurate data [about the accidents] that is needed to make a valid conclusion."

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration is the federal agency with a mandate to protect consumers from unsafe cars. Agency officials declined an ABC 11 request for an interview about the Grand Cherokee.

While Sheridan acknowledges that the Cherokee data does not specifically show what caused the fires or deaths, he believes the placement of the fuel tank is a serious problem.

"There's nothing to keep the tank from rupturing as a result of a direct impact," he said.

Since 1993, Chrysler has offered as an option for the Grand Cherokee a skid plate that provides some protection for the gas tank. It's a skid plate that it says is intended for customers "who want to do more severe off-road driving" to protect the tanks from rocks and boulders.

Beginning in 1999, a fuel tank brush guard was included as standard equipment in Cherokees that were not fitted with the skid plate. Chrysler says this was to protect the tank against brush and small rocks that might be encountered in "light duty off road driving."

ABC 11 had Sheridan examine an aftermarket version of the skid plate. It's promoted for off-road driving and sells for about $300.

"[The] skid plate does encapsulate the plastic tank. It tends to shield a plastic tank," offered Sheridan. "It might fix some of the accident scenarios and it might well have protected Mrs. Kline."

In 2005, Daimler-Chrysler redesigned the vehicle and moved the tank to the middle of the Grand Cherokee. The automaker told Eyewitness News it did that to make more room for storage space inside.

But in 2002, Chrysler admitted there was a problem with some of its Grand Cherokees. It sent a letter to NHTSA recalling 71,000 2002 modelGrand Cherokees after discovering that fuel leaked when the jeep was rolled over after a rear impact crash test.

Eyewitness News has obtained memos Chrysler sent to dealers stating "Under certain accident conditions, the fuel tank may deform and damage an internal rollover valve. This could allow fuel leakage to occur if the vehicle rolls over. In the presence of an ignition source, it can result in a fire."

Chrysler told dealers to stop selling the 2002 Grand Cherokee and sent instructions on how to fix the problem with a blocker bracket or a skid plate.

It also sent a letter to Cherokee owners about the recall.

Chrysler declined our requests for an on-camera interview, but told us the problem with the 2002 model was limited to a rollover situation with the 2002 Grand Cherokee only and did not involve Cherokees of other model years.

"It is important to note that the data you are attempting to analyze reflects real world operation over a 10-year period in which more than two and a half million 1993-2004 Jeep Grand Cherokees were on the road and many, many millions of miles of safe operation were experienced by our customers. The 1993-2004 Jeep Grand Cherokee meets or exceeds federal safety standards and has an excellent safety record," said Chrysler in a statement.

But Sheridan says, "The general public is told that a vehicle that complies with government standards is safe. I'm telling you it's not."

Eyewitness News also commissioned a study from an independent analytical firm. Using the NHTSA database, the firm concluded that fatal rear accidents reported for Grand Cherokees made between 1993 and 2004 were three times more likely to involve fires than were fatal rear accidents involving other comparable SUVs made during the same period.

Chrysler called the analysis quote “simplistic” and “invalid” and said they were “confident that a proper study which considered all factors in all fatal collisions…would show that the 1993-2004 Jeep Grand Cherokees perform as well as or better than other vehicles in their class.”

Eyewitness News also looked at fire accidents with Grand Cherokees after it was redesigned in 2005 to move the fuel tank to the middle of the vehicle. According to the NHTSA database, there has been one reported fatal accident involving fire and a Grand Cherokee made since 2005. According to police, the fire was not the cause of the fatalities.

Tom Kline sued Chrysler after the death of his wife claiming her vehicle was defective. Part two on that lawsuit here and for details on the proposed recall from the Center On Auto Safetyclick here.

If anyone has had a fire problem with their Grand Cherokee, they should contact the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration on its website at www.nhtsa.dot.gov

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