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Massive Suit Over Fatal Pennsylvania Crash

PHILADELPHIA (CN) - The brother of a couple who burned to death in a fatal collision claims in court that their Jeep caught fire because it was not crashworthy.

In addition to Edward and Theresa Dearden in the Jeep, the May 12, 2014, crash on I-78 in Berks County, Pa., killed Robert Rosner in a Chevrolet Malibu and injured a family of six driving in Dodge Caravan, according to the complaint filed Tuesday in the court of common pleas.

News reports indicate that the crash involved another four vehicles, but the Sept. 12 lawsuit names as plaintiffs only Diego and Melissa Burns and their four children, along with Edward's brother, David, and Rosner's widow, VirginiaAnn.

Their complaint names 17 defendants total, beginning with the Chrysler Group and FCA, short for Fiat Chrysler Automobiles, accused of causing the Deardens' deaths by putting a defective vehicle into the stream of commerce.

Though Chrysler had issued a product recall for a component of the Dearden vehicle ahead of the 2014 crash, the couple were unaware of the recall, according to the complaint.

"The Dearden vehicle was not crashworthy due to its propensity to burst into flames after rear impacts," the complaint states.

That is just what happens, the plaintiffs say, when tractor-trailer driver Vincente Espinerva caused a multicar pileup at about 1:10 p.m. by driving too fast in a highway construction zone.

With a line of cars stopped ahead of him in Greenwich Township, Espinerva slammed into Rosner's vehicle, which then caught fire, according to the complaint.

Rosner suffered fatal burns in the car, which became locked to the front of the trailer that subsequently jack-knifed across both eastbound lanes, the complaint states.

The Burns family says their car was hit from behind by Rosner's. Though the family of six survived with some broken bones and abrasions, their vehicle rear-ended the Deardens' Jeep, which "immediately became engulfed in flames," according to the complaint.

The 48-page complaint takes aim at the defective fuel system installed in

1993 to 1998 Jeep Grand Cherokees, including the Deardens' 1995 model.

Chrysler knew that placing fuel tanks towards the rear of these vehicles would make them prone to puncturing and leaking upon rear impact, leaving cars involved in such accidents with "a propensity to burst into flames," the lawsuit says.

In fact, Chrysler even promoted its vehicles that have more centrally located fuel systems "as offering extra fuel tank protection in the event of side or rear impacts," thus proving that the company "chose to consciously disregard [the] known hazard" the 1995 design posed, according to the complaint.

Dearden also blames Chrysler for delaying the safety recall amid mounting evidence that linked the rearward placement of fuel tanks to fatal accidents.

It took a government investigation into the frequency of Jeep SUV fires for the automaker to take action, according to the complaint.

By the time Chrysler finally issued the 2013 recall relating to the Deardens' Jeep, it had been four years since the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration tied the design defect "to at least 56 deaths," according to the complaint.

"From 2009 to 2013, Chrysler engaged in legal battles, advertising campaigns and lobbying efforts all designed to delay or forestall a product recall," the complaint states.

"During that time, the death toll from fires erupting after rear-end collisions to [the affected] Jeep Grand Cherokees continued to climb."

The recall involved 1.6 million Jeeps, but Chrysler failed to notify the Deardens of the announcement within a legally required 60-day window, according to the complaint.

It was not until April 2015 - almost a full year after the wreck - that Chrysler representatives finally left the couple's son a voicemail, "advising him of the fuel tank defect" and explaining how to get the part replaced, the complaint states.

Michael Palese a spokesman for Chrysler and FCA "express[ed] sympathies towards those who lost loved ones in the horrific crash," but said the company's vehicles are safe.

"Our longstanding position - supported in the public record by real-world data - is that our vehicles are not defective," Palese said in an email when contacted about this lawsuit. "They are among the safest in their peer groups and met or exceeded the [federal crashworthiness] standards in effect at the time they were first sold. We remain unwavering in our commitment to design, engineer and build vehicles that afford outstanding customer safety and security."

The complaint seeks punitive damages from Chrysler and FCA for negligence, strict product liability and wrongful death.

Another section of the filing describes truck driver Espinvera as "fatigued" on the day of the accident, and notes that he had been involved in six prior reportable collisions and one nonreportable collision.

Espinerva's employer, M. Salas Trucking, is also named as a defendant to the action.

A bilingual representative from M. Salas Trucking deferred questions on the allegations to a fluent English-speaking family member, who has not yet responded to the request for comment.

Another set of defendants includes those involved with the interstate roadwork. The families say these entities failed to inform motorists or authorities of the impending work.

One such defendant, Established Traffic Control Inc., declined to comment on the matter.

Dearden is represented by Robert Mongeluzzi with Saltz, Mongeluzzi, Barrett and Bendesky. Rosner's widow is represented by John Dodig of Feldman, Shepherd, Wohlgartner, Tanner, Weinstock and Dodig. Both films are in Philadelphia. The Burns are represented by David Rosenberg with Handler, Henning & Rosenberg, of Harrisburg.

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