NHTSA Lets Chrysler Off the Hook for Troubled Jeep Liberty

The Chrysler Group (FIATY.PK) has had a tough go of it with the Jeep Liberty. After facing bad press for fires breaking out in the Liberty from model years 2002 through 2007, the automaker faced recalls of the 2012 Liberty after complaints were registered about two fires in the driver-side door. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) has ruled those fires could not be connected to any manufacturing defect, clearing Chrysler of any recall burden.

Chrysler’s Jeep Liberty was among the most high profile recalls in recent years when U.S. regulators forced parent company Fiat to comply with the fix of more than 1.5 million vehicles in 2013. While those issues were related to the placement of the fuel tank — and had a high risk of deadly consequences following rear-end crashes — the 2012 Jeep Liberty had received only two complaints for fires in the driver-side door. Those complaints, combined with other warranty claims, prompted the investigation of 105,000 Jeep Liberty models and over 400,000 other Chrysler vehicles sharing the same technology.

According to the NHTSA, only one of those fires could be tied to the materials in the door, while the overall failure rate for the door switch “used in a large population of [Chrysler] vehicles appears to be low, and the failure rate for those that resulted in fires is even lower. ” The agency added that any further investigation wasn’t worth its time.

“A safety-related defect trend has not been identified at this time and further use of agency resources does not appear to be warranted. Accordingly, the investigation is closed.” The case of the Jeep Liberty suggests automakers face intense scrutiny when the same vehicle goes under the microscope more than once.

sergio marchionne chrysler ceo

A dispute between Chrsyler Fiat CEO Sergio Marchionne and U.S. Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood in June 2013 led to a private meeting between the two figures, after which Fiat agreed to recall over 1.5 million Jeep vehicles. Yet that number was considerably lower than regulators initially wanted recalled.

Chrysler agreed to provide a fix for the Jeep vehicles showing increased risk of fire without recalling them. It seems unlikely the automaker would have been investigated for two complaints on a potentially flammable door without this prior back-and-forth with the NHTSA.

Critics of automakers and the safety agency said Chrsyler got off the hook too easily when the entire slate of Jeeps with the dangerous fuel tank placement (more than 2.7 million trucks) was not recalled. In the case of the latest NHTSA investigation, it’s safe to say regulators did their due diligence.