WASHINGTON, DC (WUSA) -- Paul Sheridan spent 10 years at Chrysler, his last as a Product Planning Manager, heading up safety leadership for the company.
Chrysler fired, then sued Sheridan, alleging he gave away confidential company information. Sheridan countered with a whistleblower lawsuit that claimed he was demoted, and then fired for speaking out about safety issues.
The court dismissed Sheridan's suit, and Chrysler dropped its suit against him. Now, Sheridan works as a paid consultant in the industry and has shifted his sights to the safety of the 1993 to 2004 model Jeep Grand Cherokees.
"Folks don't understand that their fuel tank is hanging out behind the axle below the bumper. They don't know they're at risk when they drive down the road with their family members in this vehicle," says Sheridan.
A risk, safety advocates say occurs more often in the Grand Cherokee because of where the gas tank is positioned - behind the rear axle.
The non profitCenter for Auto Safety first brought the issue to theNational Highway Traffic Safety Administration or NHTSAback in 2009. The Center used the government's database to track fatal fire crashes linked to 1993 to 2004 Jeep Grand Cherokees.
They have now tracked 51 accidents where 72 people died in rear, side and rollover crashes, where fire was the chief cause of their death.
Back in 2009, theCenter for Auto Safety asked NHTSA to investigate the problem. NHTSA did. Last week, they expanded their probe. And, in a NHTSA document, the safety agency says that "rear impact related tank failures and vehicle fires are more prevalent in the late model Jeep Grand Cherokee'sthan in non Jeeppeer vehicles."
Sheridan says he wants NHTSA to conduct their own crash tests to investigate further.
Sheridan observed the crash tests performed by a California engineering firm and paid for by the Center for Auto Safety. In this test, when a Ford Taurus strikes the Jeep Grand Cherokee, you see what's called an underride.
The Taurus bumper is lower to the ground and does not line up with this Grand Cherokee's bumper. Instead, it goes under the vehicle, striking the gas tank and creating a fire risk.
Chrysler takes issue with these tests. They maintain their cars met the federal standard for the Grand Cherokee at the time it was manufactured, which is true. And, that their vehicles are safe.
"It's been known in the industry for many, many decades. So when this vehicle was actually delivered to the public, it wasn't that the underride accident scenario was unknown. It was known, " says Sheridan.
Sheridan gave NHTSA a once-confidential memo, that according to court documents, was widely distributed throughout the company. It is dated August 24, 1978 and details potential issues with the gas tank placement and fiery deaths.
In it, two development and safety managers for Chrysler wrote:
"There is a concern with vertical height differences that create a mismatch with passenger car bumpers."
And, "where fuel tank location behind the rear axle is all that is feasible, a protective impact deflection structure may have to be provided whether or not a bumper is provided."
The memo goes on to say: "An investigation into whether to relocate the fuel tank or to provide impact deflecting structures is presently underway."
When this memo was written, American Motors Corporation owned Jeep. In 1987, Chrysler bought Jeep and inherited the gas tank placement design. The design for the Jeep Grand Cherokee changed in 2005.
Sheridan and other safety advocates say a steel skid plate could be just the thing to help deflect the impact of a crash and prevent a fire. It can cost anywhere from $200 to $450 dollars depending on the manufacturer.
"This will completely protect the tank duringa rear end collision and rather than making direct contact with the tank, you will have protection from this very strong device that bolts to the vehicle," says Sheridan.
Sheridan and the Center for Auto Safety believe a skid plate isone relatively inexpensive fix. Chrysler offered skid plates on the 1993 through 2004 Jeep Grand Cherokees as an option for off roading.
We don't know how many Jeep vehicles have a factory or after market steel skid plate installed. In 2005, the company moved the gas tank ahead of the rear axle and added the skid plate as a standard piece of equipment.
Chrysler says it "conducted rear impact testing without skid plates and the 93-04 Jeep Grand Cherokee exceeded the rigorous federal rear impact test requirements and performance, and that the overwhelming majority of rear impact fires over the life of the 93-04 Jeep Grand Cherokee were the result of high speed, high energy crashes in which a skid plate would have made no difference in the outcome of these tragic events."
Paul Sheridan says he would not put a family member in one of these vehicles without some additional protection to the tank.
And, when asked whether Chrysler could say he's a disgruntled employee with an ax to grind, Sheridan responded: "The priority for me is making sure there are no more deaths and no more serious burn accidents regarding, with respect to this vehicle."
And, he also says, "I share my expertise in the area of automotive safety, and that's my primary purpose," says Sheridan.
Paul Sheridan is now an expert paid by trial lawyers to testify against Chrysler in cases that involve the 1993 to 2004 Jeep Grand Cherokees and deaths or injuries that have resulted from fiery crashes.
NHTSA is apparently concerned enough with what they have reviewed so far to expand their fire investigation. It now includes 1993 to 2001 Cherokee's and 2002 to 2007 Jeep Liberty vehicles.
Earlier in the story, we mentioned that Chrysler moved the gas tank ahead of the rear axle beginning with the 2005 Jeep Grand Cherokee models. Since then, according to the Center for Auto Safety, who were the first to raise these concerns - there have been no fire related deaths linked to the gas tank.
It's important to note that, right now, this is just an investigation, not a recall.
So what should you do if you have one of these vehicles?
Auto experts say you should limit the amount of time you spend in the vehicle. One expert told us that people with these vehicles should press Chrysler to come up with a fix. But Chrysler says there's no fix necessary. They say, these vehicles are safe and that some of their employees own and drive the models now being investigated.
But, if you are interested in the skid plate we showedyou in the story, here are some links:
To learn more on the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration's investigation on the 1993-2004 Jeep Grand Cherokee, click here.
Written by Lesli Foster & Stephanie Wilson
9 News Now and wusa9.com