Matthew B. Stoddard

While the Georgia Supreme Court justices were reading five amicus briefs in support of Chrysler asking them to toss a $40 million judgment for an exploding Jeep gas tank, they also saw one from the other side.

The Center for Auto Safety wrote an amicus brief in support of the family of Remington Walden, the 4-year-old boy killed after his aunt’s Jeep was hit from behind by a pickup truck. The two drivers stepped out unharmed. But the Jeep burst into flames before Remi could be rescued from his car seat.

Matthew Stoddard of the Stoddard Firm in Atlanta signed the brief for the Center for Auto Safety, known as CAS, founded in 1970. The group filed a defect investigation petition in 2009 with the National Highway Safety Traffic Administration on the gas tank in question in this case, Stoddard’s brief said.

“When CAS filed that petition, Remington Walden was alive,” Stoddard wrote. “Had our petition resulted in a timely recall, he would still be alive. Instead, he burned to death at the age of four in a vehicle that should have been designed for his protection.”

Stoddard said that politically appointed leaders at NHST decided not to recall the gas tank at issue after meeting with Chrysler CEO Sergio Marchionne. The safety group took issue with Chrysler’s primary defense at trial–that the Jeep was not dangerous–“despite the fact its gas tank location was just like that of the other Jeep models that were recalled.”

The safety group also disagreed with Chrysler and its amici on an issue over discussion of Marchionne’s salary.

Lead plaintiffs counsel Jim Butler of Butler Wooten & Peak asked the jury to award $120 million for Remi’s life–“less than two years of what Mr. Marchionne made just last year.” Butler added, “He made $68 million last year.”

“Entrusting the admission of compensation evidence to the trial court’s discretion is far more consistent with Georgia law than [Fiat Chrysler’s] proposed categorical rule of exclusion,” Stoddard wrote. “Leaving this issue to the trial court’s discretion would be consistent with the way this Court has treated types of evidence that are universally recognized as raising the risk of prejudice, such as prior bad acts.”

The verdict was $150 million in a spring 2015 trial in Bainbridge for the family of a 4-year-old Remi Walden, killed when a Jeep gas tank exploded. By summer that year, Judge J. Kevin Chason of South Georgia Circuit Superior Court had slashed the award to $40 million.

Stoddard urged the high court to affirm the trial judge’s discretion. “CAS’s interest is one that is shared by the courts and the public—the full exposition, through litigation and other means, of all true facts related to automobile safety,” Stoddard said. “That interest is fostered if the jury can take into account the existence and extent of the financial relationship between an automobile manufacturer and an employee-witness upon whom its key defense depends.”

The case is Chrysler v. Walden, No. S17G0832.