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On a recent episode of All Things Legal, Craig Ashton and Ed Schade discussed a vehicle recall—originally announced in April—that is making headlines due to a lawsuit filed by the family of a promising young actor in response to his tragic death.

On June 19th, actor Anton Yelchin, most well-known for his portrayal of Chekhov in the new Star Trek films, drove his 2015 Grand Cherokee to the end of his driveway as he was leaving his property, but then exited the vehicle and walked behind it. The vehicle, which was in neutral gear, rolled backward and pinned him against a security gate, asphyxiating him.

It turns out that Yelchin’s death may have been in part due to a poorly designed gearshift.

The monostable electronic shifter at the heart of the recall.

The monostable electronic shifter that is the target of the recall.

Two months prior to his death, a recall of 1.1 million vehicles was announced for the 2015 Jeep Grand Cherokee, as well as several other recent models of Chrysler, Dodge, and Jeep vehicles. As Craig explained, the recall isn’t due to a malfunction, but rather, the confusing design of the vehicles’ shifter: “Basically, putting it into park or drive, [you can’t] feel from a mechanical perspective… exactly what gear it’s in. [In the case of Anton Yelchin, he] opened up the door and apparently it was not in park, and it rolled down the driveway and crushed him.”

Craig elaborated on what makes the shifter so confusing: “[The affected cars use] a monostable electronic ’e-shift’ gearshift assembly, in which the driver depresses a button on the shifter, moves it forward or backward into gear, and then the shifter itself swings back to a center position. Apparently, the problem with it is that as the operator, you don’t know if it’s in park or whether or not it’s in drive… and the user becomes confused, and then it can roll and then crush them. And that appears to be what occurred in [the Yelchin] case.”

The website Autoweek posted a video on YouTube demonstrating the design issues of the shifter. At about 25 seconds in, it’s shown that a firm push forward on the shifter can shift the vehicle from ‘drive’ to ‘park,’ skipping over the middle options of ‘neutral’ and ‘reverse.’ But with a slightly softer push, as shown at about 32 seconds, will instead shift the vehicle into neutral. A difference of a few millimeters means that the same motion can either shift an affected vehicle into ‘park’ or ‘neutral.’ In addition, the current gear selection is only indicated by an illuminated letter on the shifter, which is easily obscured in bright light, or under the user’s hand. The current gear is also indicated using a similar display on the dash, but it’s easy to see how an incautious or distracted driver might mistakenly leave their car in ‘neutral,’ rather than ‘park.’

The problem is serious enough that owners who were injured by the affected vehicles would likely have the grounds for a solid corporate liability lawsuit. Hence, Chrysler, Dodge, and Jeep have seen fit to recall the problematic vehicles.

Find out if your vehicle is affected by the electronic gearshift recall.

Craig went on to explain the details of the recall: “So apparently 2015 Jeep Grand Cherokees have been recalled. [The recall] includes more than 800,000 midsize SUVs and full-size cars with transmission shifters, now linked to 68 injuries and 266 crashes. If you have a Jeep Grand Cherokee, or you’re curious whether or not it’s been recalled, go to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s website, nhtsa.gov, and you can type in your VIN number and determine whether or not your vehicle has been recalled.”

The fix itself is relatively simple, as no hardware is replaced. Instead, the vehicle’s software is updated so that if a door is opened while the vehicle is in neutral, it automatically shifts into park. Unfortunately, the update takes a little over 3 hours, which has slowed down the recall process a bit. However, affected manufacturers have been working to speed up the process to get the fix out as quickly as possible.

Dealing with a recall can be an inconvenience. However, this is not a recall that’s safe to wait on. As Craig put it: “This is a really significant safety issue. This is no joke. This is not something [minor] that, you know, your window’s not going up and down where it’s more of an inconvenience. This is something that could be tragic.”

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