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Defective vehicle parts may be cause of ‘Star Trek’ star’s tragic death; vehicle was part of massive recall over false park issue

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Anton Yelchin, best known for playing Ensign Pavel Chekov in the recently rebooted Star Trek movie franchise, died in mid June in a tragic accident. Yelchin, 27, was apparently pinned by his Chrysler-made Jeep Cherokee in the driveway of his California home. Yet with defective products such as the false park issue in Yelchin’s car, the tragedy could have been avoided.

The loss of life is certainly tragic. What is worse is that the accident that killed Yelchin was eminently preventable. Like with many defective products, the false park issue in Yelchin’s car was one that had resulted in other injuries, leading to a recall of car models with the defective products several months before his death.

Yelchin accident

According to published reports, Yelchin died on June 19 in the driveway of his Los Angeles home. At about 1 a.m., he was on his way to a rehearsal but never arrived. When he hadn’t arrived, friends went to his home where they discovered him pinned between his 2015 Jeep Grand Cherokee, a brick mailbox and a security fence.

Officials suspect that Yelchin got out of the car, thinking it had been placed in park, when the vehicle rolled over him. Assistant Chief Coroner Ed Winter of the Los Angeles County coroner’s office ruled his death due to blunt traumatic asphyxia. Winter said Yelchin likely died within a minute of the false park accident.

Rollaway accidents

Yelchin’s driveway was a steep incline. Rollaway vehicles kill about 90 people a year, according to the national Highway Traffic Safety Administration. The NHTSA reports there were 370 known deaths from rollaway vehicles between 2008 and 2011. In addition, the NHTSA suspects that about 2,000 each year are injured by unattended cars that roll, whether from a false park or other issue.

While the majority of car-related fatalities happen in moving accidents, there are roughly 500 fatalities each year from cars in non-crash incidents. About a quarter of those fatalities are like Yelchin’s, where a vehicle crushes the victim (though most of those fatalities are to people working underneath cars, which is not believed to be the case in the Yelchin death).

Preventable death?

A tragic component of the case is that Yelchin’s car was involved in a massive recall recently. The Jeep model Yelchin owned was among 1.1million cars recalled in April 2016 due to a problematic gear shift.

The gearshift used in the recalled autos with defective products gained scrutiny in 2015. At that time, the NHTSA started an investigation into the model after receiving reports of accidents where drivers believed that the vehicle was in park when it actually was in neutral. This misperception led to a number of accidents involving cars equipped with the faulty gearshift.

Typically, drivers choose one of the typical transmission options – park, reverse, drive, neutral, lower gears – by moving the gearshift into the desired position, often while depressing a button on the gearshift, or in the case of manual transmissions, depressing the clutch pedal. Drivers can usually feel the car shift into the new transmission mode.

Yet in recent models of the Jeep Grand Cherokee, as well as the Chrysler 300 and Dodge Charger, a monostable electronic gearshift assembly was used instead. This gearshift is described as looking and feeling like a video game joystick. A driver pushes the gear stick forward or backward until the proper transmission mode appears on a display. The driver then releases the gearshift, which pops back into its central position, as opposed to traditional models that remain in the shifted-to gear notch (or detent in car lingo).

When the NHTSA released its initial report in February 2016, it reported 121 alleged crashes and 314 complaints related to the false park caused by new gearshift assembly. Among the accidents were 30 cases where injuries were reported, with four people hospitalized with damaged internal organs or broken bones. No fatalities were reported in the February notice.

That preliminary report notes that if a driver’s door is opened while the car is not in park, a chime sounds. Push-button engine start and stop controls also do not function. “However, this function does not protect drivers who intentionally leave the engine running or drivers who do not recognize that the engine continues to run after an attempted shut-off,” the NHTSA report reads. The report goes on to say that the gearshift “is not intuitive and provides poor Investigation: EA 16-002 Open Resume Page 2 of 2 tactile and visual feedback to the driver, increasing the potential for unintended gear selection.”

The end result? Drivers may think their car is in park when it’s actually in neutral. Yelchin’s friends told authorities the car was in neutral.

Fiat Chrysler, manufacturer of the models in question, announced a recall in April 2016. Of the 1.1 million affected vehicles, more than 800,000 were sold in the United States. In May, it sent letters to those affected by the planned recall. The letter indicated that a fix of the situation was being developed, with repairs likely to begin in the summer. The letter also included the following warning: “ALWAYS DO A VISUAL CHECK that your vehicle is in ‘PARK,'” Drivers were also urged to always use the parking brake.

The company stopped using the new gearshift in new cards, including the 2016 Jeep Grand Cherokee.

Protecting consumers

Consumers are often vulnerable when it comes to defective products, despite the best efforts of companies to recall poorly made items. However, often consumers need to turn to a product liability attorney to protect themselves from careless companies and their products.

At the Garcia & Ochoa LLP law firm, product liability attorneys work closely with accident victims and their families to make sure they are represented against companies whose products cause harm. With more than 30 years of experience, the product liability attorneys have worked with thousands of clients to get the compensation they deserve. If you or a loved one was injured in a false park accident, contact Garcia & Ochoa for a free consultation and to know your rights.

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