LOS ANGELES (CN) — The parents of “Star Trek” actor Anton Yelchin, who was crushed in his driveway by his Jeep Grand Cherokee, sued the automaker Tuesday, blaming the car’s poorly designed gear selector for their son’s death.
The wrongful death suit by Victor and Irina Yelchin against FCA [Fiat Chrysler America] and others claims the electronic gearshift system in many of the auto giant’s cars is difficult to put into park and can appear to be in park when it is in neutral.
They say that what happened on June 19 to their son, the 27-year-old actor best known for playing Ensign Pavel Chekov in three recent “Star Trek” films.
Yelchin left his 2015 Grand Cherokee at the top of his driveway and walked down toward his gate, apparently believing the car was safely in park. The Jeep rolled downhill onto him, pinning him against the mailbox pillar and security fence.
He was “crushed and lingered alive for some time, trapped and suffocating until his death,” his parents say in the lawsuit. The county coroner confirmed that Yelchin’s death was due to “blunt traumatic asphyxia.”
His parents’ lawsuit follows close behind two class actions against the company by owners of other Fiat Chrysler cars with the same “Monostable” electronic shifter.
In April, the company announced it would voluntarily recall about 1.1 million of the cars, including many 2012-14 Dodge Chargers, 2012-14 Chryslers 300s, and 2014-15 Jeep Grand Cherokees.
The e-shifter “has an unfamiliar movement that is not intuitive and that provides poor tactile and visual feedback to drivers, increasing the potential for unintended gear selection and vehicle roll away,” the Yelchins’ lawsuit states, largely quoting a report from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.
Rather than clicking through distinct detents for park, reverse, neutral, drive and low, the unusual shift control is more like a joystick that toggles forward or back to select gears and then snaps back to a center position.
If a driver gets out of the car while it is in a gear other than park, a warning signal and chime go off. But if the driver intends to exit briefly with the engine running, he could do so without realizing the car is not in park, “resulting in unattended vehicle rollaway,” according to the lawsuit.
Lead defendant FCA US LLC [Fiat Chrysler America] designed, made, tested, marketed and distributed the 2015 Jeep Grand Cherokee with the defective gear selector that killed their son, the Yelchins say.
They claim that by April, FCA had received more than 700 customer reports of problems, including 212 crashes, 41 injuries and 308 property damage claims. In late June, NHTSA closed its investigation after finding 686 complaints, 68 injuries, and 266 crashes linked to the shifter.
The parents claim that FCA knew about the shifter problems for months, yet “unreasonably delayed in issuing an effective recall” of the vehicles.
Fiat Chrysler “put profit before safety,” the Yelchins’ attorney Gary A. Dordick said in an interview.
During a Tuesday press conference, Victor Yelchin said he and his wife filed suit to warn others about the recalled shifters.
“In spite of our unbelievable grief, we decided to come here to prevent other families from the same tragedy,” he said.
Fiat Chrysler America said it had not yet been served with the lawsuit and could not comment on it. However, it said it “extends its sympathies to the Yelchin family for their tragic loss.” It urged its customers “to follow the instructions in their owners manuals and the information cards sent with their recall notices. These instructions include advising customers to set the parking brakes in their vehicles before exiting.”
Dordick said the company’s formal notice of the recall arrived in Anton Yelchin’s mail a week after his death. “Too little too late,” he said.
Company spokesman Eric Mayne said that FCA sent advisory notices about the problem to all registered owners in May, including a visor card instructing drivers how to use the shifter safely.
Dordick said in an email that he does not know if Anton Yelchin received the May notice, as it could not be found among his belongings.
The Yelchins seek general and punitive damages for strict liability, negligent product liability, breach of warranty, wrongful death and personal injuries.
Defendants include the U.S. arm of the shifter’s manufacturer, ZF North America Inc., Auto Company XXIII Inc. dba Autonation Chrysler Dodge Jeep Valencia and CA Superstores Valencia CJD.
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