Monday, June 16, 2008

Hot seat: Chrysler v. Magna

Automaker blames supplier for seat warmers that overheat

DETROIT — Chrysler LLC is suing Magna International Inc. for millions of dollars to cover mounting costs of injuries and recalls involving heated seats in Chrysler minivans.

Chrysler blames North America's largest parts supplier for a technical flaw in the heated seats that can cause serious burns — especially to paraplegics, who cannot feel their seats overheating. Magna denied the allegations in court filings.

Chrysler sued Magna in Oakland County Circuit Court in Michigan over who will pick up the multimillion-dollar tab for faulty seat warmers that were the subject of two recalls in 2005. Affected minivans are the 1999 and 2000 Chrysler Town & Country and Dodge Grand Caravan.

In addition, Chrysler faces lawsuits over seat heater problems on 2003 and 2004 Jeep Grand Cherokees. Chrysler voluntarily recalled those seats but denied they represented a safety problem. Johnson Controls Inc. supplied the seats on the Grand Cherokees.

Neither Chrysler nor Johnson Controls would say whether there is litigation between them over the recalls.


In an April 8, 2004, letter to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, DaimlerChrysler said it had received 221 customer complaints about minivan seats overheating. Of those complaints, 26 were allegations of minor injuries and 33 were alleged fires. Five complaints resulted in lawsuits.

The letter said none of the complainants sought medical attention. "Based upon the follow-up interviews, lack of treatment sought and the customer narratives, the majority of the reports classified as 'alleged injury' for this report are referring to only a burning feeling or sensation," the letter said.

Chrysler spokesman Michael Palese says Chrysler had only one reported case of injuries caused by the defective minivan seats. But four law firms handling cases across the United States identified more than a dozen against Chrysler alleging injuries involving minivans and Grand Cherokees.

The overall costs of the mounting lawsuits are unknown. Some have been settled before going to trial.

Chrysler's lawsuit contends that Magna, of Aurora, Ontario, has denied responsibility for the recalls and has disputed any obligation to reimburse Chrysler for costs incurred in remedying the allegedly defective heated seat assemblies.

"We're not a charity," says Chrysler spokesman Palese. "If we deserve compensation or consideration, we will pursue it."

Magna spokeswoman Tracy Fuerst declined to comment. Last year, Magna derived $3.33 billion, or 13 percent, of its $25.65 billion in sales from Chrysler.

Palese declined to put a price tag on Chrysler's costs. The automaker's lawsuit says it has spent "millions of dollars replacing the defective heated seat assemblies" on its 1999 and 2000 minivans.

In February 2005, Chrysler recalled 110,000 Dodge Grand Caravan and Chrysler Town & Country minivans. It replaced the front-seat heater elements, modules and related wiring that had been designed, manufactured and supplied by Magna. In November 2005, Chrysler recalled an additional 51,500 minivans.

Hot spots

In the lawsuit, Chrysler claims that the heated seat assemblies — supplied by Norwegian supplier Kongsberg Automotive Inc. to Magna — developed small burn-through patterns and localized hot spots. Chrysler has not sued Kongsberg, a spokesman for the Norwegian supplier said.

The seat heating element resembles a miniature electric blanket filled with wires surrounded by seat padding.

Chrysler's lawsuit against Magna, filed Feb. 27, says the root cause of the defects was wiring problems and/or solder failure. Doug Wheeler, an engineer with Kongsberg, declined comment.

In the instance of the Grand Cherokee seats, DaimlerChrysler said in June 2006 that it would recall nearly 111,700 Jeep Grand Cherokees from model years 2003 and 2004 because seats could overheat and cause fires.

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