As part of an agreement with federal regulators, Fiat Chrysler Automobiles has agreed to buy back more than 500,000 vehicles susceptible to veering out of control without warning at above market-value prices. The deal mainly covers certain models of RAM trucks, the Dodge Dakota pickup and Dodge Durango SUV. Further, owners of more than 1.5 million Jeep Liberty and Grand Cherokees at heightened risk for lethal fires are eligible to trade in their vehicles at above market value or, alternately, get a gift certificate if they prefer to have repairs made.
Chrysler has "a heavy responsibility to make sure the products they make are safe for the traveling public," said Mark Rosekind, administrator of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. "... Here, we are sending an unambiguous signal to industry that if you skirt the laws or violate the law, or don't live up to the responsibility that consumers expect, we are going to penalize you."
The buy-back and trade-in options for motorists come as part of an unprecedented penalty NHTSA slapped against Chrysler for violating federal motor-vehicle safety laws. Chrysler will pay a $105 million fine, the highest ever levied by the regulatory agency. In addition to the buy-backs, Chrysler also agreed to an independent monitor for three years.
Investigators had outlined problems in the company's conduct in 23 recalls that affected more than 11 million defect vehicles. As part of a consent-order agreement, Chrysler acknowledged it did not notify vehicle owners of recalls in an effective manner and did not notify NHTSA of safety problems.
Though those recalls affected millions of drivers, the buy-back and trade-in options are only for a small portion of the vehicles involved. Because Chrysler struggled to fix the problem and no repair was apparent, Rosekind said the buy-backs are reserved "for customers who didn't have a remedy." Buy-backs are for trucks and SUVs affected by three recalls that occurred in 2013 (recalls 13V-038, 13V-527 and 13V-529), that addressed a rear-axle pinion nut that could come loose and cause a loss of vehicle control. Those recalls covered 579,228 vehicles, including 2009-2012 Ram 1500, 2500, 3500, 4500 and 5500 trucks, 2009-2012 Dodge Dakotas, 2009 Chrysler Aspen and the 2009 Dodge Durango.
Owners of Jeep Grand Cherokees in the 1993 to 1998 model years and 2002 to 2007 Jeep Liberties can either trade in their vehicle and receive $1,000 over the fair market value of the car – the combined total of which can be applied toward the purchase of another Chrysler car, parts or service, or, alternately, car owners can have the cars repaired and receive a $100 unrestricted gift card. Federal officials added that step as a means to encourage drivers to get their cars either fixed or off the road.
Chrysler must notify owners within 60 days of their eligibility for these options. Right now, Chrysler doesn't have specific information, but says "we are working out the details of contacting affects customers and our dealers," a company spokesperson said. "More details will be available in the near future." In the meantime, concerned motorists may want to go to SaferCar.gov and use their VIN to determine whether their cars were affected by the aforementioned recalls.
US Department of Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx hailed the penalties as one way to protect American drivers. "Fiat Chrysler Automobiles has failed to meet its legal obligations and even worse, Fiat Chrysler failed its biggest obligation, it failed to protect American drivers," he said. "That included remedies that weren't actually remedies, they didn't fix safety defects and didn't give consumers information needed to make repairs. ... This pattern is unacceptable."