'Star Trek' Actor's Tragic Death Caused by Faulty Jeep Gear Shift

The high-profile death of “Star Trek” actor Anton Yelchin has put a global spotlight on the dangers of a defective gear shifter found in 1.1 million Fiat Chrysler vehicles recalled worldwide in April over a rollaway issue.

Yelchin, 27, died tragically Sunday morning when his 2015 Jeep Grand Cherokee was left in neutral and rolled down his driveway, pinning him against the brick mailbox and security fence at his Los Angeles home.

“A number of reports have mistakenly referred to this incident as a ‘freak accident,’” wrote Langdon & Emison partner Brett Emison in a recent blog post. “Let’s be clear: While tragic, this was not a ‘freak’ accident. The incident appears to be tied to a well-documented and acknowledged design flaw in the 2015 Jeep Grand Cherokee and other Fiat Chrysler vehicles.”

The Defect

Yelchin’s SUV is one of millions of Chrysler, Dodge and Jeep vehicles with an uncommon and poorly designed electronic gear shifter that, oddly, returns to the default center position after a driver selects a gear, making it difficult to tell what gear the vehicle is in.

Most gear selectors remain in forward or back positions, depending on whether the car is in Park, Reverse, Neutral or Drive; however, the gear shifter in these vehicles always remains upright, which means the driver moves it forward or back to select a gear, but then the shifter returns to its original upright position.

Rollaways can occur when a driver exits a vehicle with the engine running without first putting it in the “Park” setting. A driver might mistakenly believe a car is in “Park” mode because the models at issue have shift levers that return to the same position after each gear adjustment, according to an investigation by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and a recent Law360 report.

A video demonstration by NBC News shows precisely why a number of people have exited their vehicles thinking they had put the vehicle into park, when in reality, it remained in the Drive or Reverse position, leading to rollaway events.

Vehicle Owners Beware

In April, Fiat Chrysler issued a voluntary recall of 2014-2015 Grand Cherokees as well as 2012-14 Chrysler 300 and Dodge Charger sedans. During that time, there were more than 700 field reports potentially related to the issue, including 212 crashes, 308 claims of property damage and 41 injuries.

Illinois-based Sam Leman Automotive Group, which sells Chrysler, Dodge and Jeep vehicles, even created a video guide to help drivers safely use the electronic shifter. While helpful, the video illustrates how the system could be confusing to drivers.

In February, NHTSA expanded its investigation of E-shift gear shifters in a number of Fiat Chrysler vehicles, specifically looking into reports that vehicles may roll away after drivers exit the vehicle, thinking they had put the transmission into “Park.” The agency first investigated the issue in August 2015, though it did not lead to a recall at that time.

NHTSA concluded in its testing that the shifter “is not intuitive and provides poor tactile and visual feedback to the driver, increasing the potential for unintended gear selection,” according to a statement by the agency.

In April, Fiat Chrysler said it planned to change the behavior of the shifter by adding additional warning chimes that would sound off when the driver’s door is opened while the vehicle is not in Park. The company also planned to add a software patch that would prevent the vehicle from moving under certain conditions, even when Park is not selected.

If you own or drive any of the recalled vehicles, please contact the manufacturer or dealership immediately. Anton Yelchin’s unfortunate and tragic death is a stark reminder that vehicle defects and design flaws have fatal consequences.

Contact Langdon & Emison

Langdon & Emison’s reputation as a national leader in auto product liability litigation comes from 30 years of taking on the world’s largest auto manufacturers in courtrooms from coast to coast, including the U.S. Supreme Court. If you or someone you know has been injured in an accident and a vehicle defect could be at issue, contact our firm for a free case evaluation at 800-397-4910 or send us an email and one of our attorneys will promptly respond.