The government told Chrysler Corp. on Tuesday to recall more than 91,000 Chryslers and Dodges because of unsafe seat belts, then went to court to enforce the order after the company refused to go along.
Chrysler told the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration months ago that it would not comply with any recall of the 1995 cars. That prompted the Justice Department to file a federal civil lawsuit to force the company to notify owners and fix the Chrysler Cirrus and Dodge Stratus cars for free.
This is the first time the government has taken such action based on its own safety tests, though the traffic safety agency has taken manufacturers to court on eight previous occasions for alleged defects based on accidents and engineering analysis. The government has lost only one of those cases.
In January, the government determined that the cars’ rear seat belt system was not strong enough, because a weld nut anchoring the belt pulled out of the floor of a Cirrus during a routine test. The same system is used in the Stratus.
Chrysler lawyer Lewis Goldfarb said the court battle has implications for all auto makers because the testing procedure wasn’t clear in terms of what the firm had to do to comply.
Chrysler executives said in a statement that on the road, as opposed to a government test, “there has not been a single incident of rear seat belt anchor failure, injury or complaint.”
“We’re taking a huge public relations hit. This has to be real important to this company,” Goldfarb said in a telephone interview from Auburn Hills, Mich.
The government requires a seat belt system to sustain a 3,000-pound load for 10 seconds. In the government test, the belt pulled out before the 3,000 pounds was attained.
The agency and Chrysler are arguing over the position of the government’s testing equipment. Government documents say Chrysler duplicated the NHTSA’s test and that the belt still failed. However, Chrysler said that if the testing equipment is placed closer to the seat, the anchor system works properly.
A federal judge will rule on the lawsuit.
The maximum civil penalty that could be assessed for refusing the recall is $800,000, according to court documents. However, Chrysler executives say money is not the issue since the recall would cost comparatively little.
Industry sources place that cost at about $2 million.