The current row between the United States National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and Chrysler Group LLC may not just be an issue between the two entities as it may involve the entire auto industry. NHTSA has requested Chrysler to recall around 2.7 million Jeep Grand Cherokee and Liberty sports utility vehicles due to safety concerns linked to fires in their rear-ends.
Chrysler has since declined the request, saying the concerned vehicles are safe and were able to comply with applicable Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards at the time they were built.
The ongoing dispute between Chrysler and NHTSA will likely lead to protracted litigation since it appears to test the American principle that says government cannot impose regulation ex post facto. This means the government cannot impose penalty for something that was done and legal in the past but is now outlawed.
A Chrysler loss could set a precedent that NHTSA can compel carmakers to recall and modify vehicles that were legal when they were produced. While a court battle may have yet to start, Chrysler appears to be losing in terms of public opinion.
This is primarily because Clarence Ditlow and the Center for Auto Safety, which have been pushing for a recall of Jeep Grand Cherokees, managed to gain sympathy of the public early on. Hours before NHTSA’s letter to Chrysler was disclosed, news reports were already showing images from NHTSA's letter of burned-out Jeeps. Some news commentators were already comparing the Jeep fires to the controversial Ford Pinto fires more than 30 years ago. [source: automotive news - sub. required]