Wrongful death trial questions gas tank involved in fiery Hamilton crash

A wrongful death trial targeting the makers of an SUV a Hamilton woman was driving in October 2017 when she was killed in a fiery crash is scheduled to begin this week.

Reams of documents and boxes of evidence are stacked in Butler County Common Pleas Judge Greg Howard’s courtroom in anticipation of the trial that is scheduled to last about three weeks. Howard has called for 200 potential jurors for jury selection, which will happen in the county’s largest courtroom on the second floor of the Government Services Center.

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Deanna Gilreath, 58, “burned to death” in her 2004 Jeep Liberty on Oct. 20, 2017 when the vehicle was struck in the rear by a truck because of a rear-mounted gas tank, according to the lawsuit filed by Georgia attorney James Butler III in 2018 for Daniel Gilreath, Deanna’s husband and administrator of her estate. The crash happened on Ohio 129 near Fair Avenue in Hamilton.

The rear impact demolished the rear-mounted gas tank in the Jeep, causing a fire. The suit alleges the company that manufactured the Jeep Liberty, FCA US LLC, knew about the dangers of rear-mounted gas tanks and did nothing to prevent issues.

“FCA knew from real-word collisions that the gas tanks in its rear-tank Jeeps (specifically 1993-2004 Grand Cherokees, 1993-2001 Cherokees and 2002-2007 Liberties) all of which had tanks mounted within the rear-most 11 inches of the vehicles were leaking in rear-end collisions,” the lawsuit states.

Over the past 20 years, FCA has been in constant litigation involving collision fuel-fed fires on the rear-tank vehicles and “has faced sustained pressure from regulators, citizens, the press and nonprofit entities to buy the vehicles back or conduct a meaningful recall,” Butler wrote in the lawsuit.

But even though FCA knew the rear-mounted gas tanks exposed occupants to fire and death, the company designed, marketed and sold the 2002 to 2007 Jeep Liberties with rear-mounted gas tanks, the suit says.

Cited in the lawsuit are 61 similar collisions involving exploding rear-mounted gas tanks in Jeep vehicles between 1998 and 2017.

Gilreath seeks to recover damages for his wife’s wrongful death, citing mental anguish, pain and suffering.

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Tracy Moore of Fairfield, the driver of a concrete truck the hit Gilreath, is also named as a defendant, along with Tri-State Concrete Inc. of Hamilton, the company that owned the truck.

Last year, Moore pleaded guilty in Butler County Common Pleas Court to a charge of third-degree aggravated vehicular homicide for the fatal crash. Judge Noah Powers II sentenced him to 60 days in the Butler County Jail and suspended his driver’s license for a lifetime. The Gilreath family wrote a letter to the Butler County prosecutor asking for leniency.

The truck was estimated to have been traveling 65 mph when it struck Gilreath’s SUV, according to police. The posted speed limit on Ohio 129 at Fair Avenue is 35 mph, according to police.

Moore said as he drove down Ohio 129, he applied the brakes, but they didn’t work. The traffic on Ohio 129 was backed up, and there was a school bus, with tinted windows, on his right, he said at his sentencing hearing. He didn’t want to hit the bus because he couldn’t tell if there were children inside, he said.

“I had one option,” Moore said.

Powers noted that Moore knew the truck’s brakes were failing, and by driving the truck, he was putting everyone at risk, especially those on Ohio 129 where the speed limit is 65 mph.

Powers said Moore was “responsible” in many respects for causing the fatal crash.

“You knew all the while your brakes may not work,” the judge told Moore. “I’m not going to hold you blameless for that.”

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