NEW YORK • The 2015 Jeep Grand Cherokee that rolled backwards down a driveway and killed actor Anton Yelchin on Sunday was a model that Fiat Chrysler has recalled for a gear-shift issue that has confused drivers, leading them to accidentally leave the car in neutral mode when they think it is safely in park mode.
Los Angeles Police investigators and the carmaker said on Monday that it was too soon to determine the cause of the accident. Yelchin, 27, was killed after he got out of his Jeep and it rolled down his steep driveway, crushing him against a concrete-reinforced mailbox, a police spokesman said.
He died of accidental blunt force asphyxia, Los Angeles County Coroner assistant chief Ed Winter said on Monday. The results of toxicology tests to determine if the actor was under the influence of any substances are not due back for at least six weeks, he added.
The police spokesman said she did not know if his vehicle's transmission was in neutral. But the Jeep was part of a recall by Fiat Chrysler in April of almost 812,000 vehicles, including the 2014 and 2015 Grand Cherokee models. That recall was prompted by an investigation by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration after complaints by car owners and reports of dozens of related injuries.
Fiat Chrysler has been a prime target of the government's efforts to penalise carmakers for lax safety practices. Last year, federal regulators accused Fiat Chrysler of failing to conduct recalls and complete repairs in a timely fashion, and hit the company with US$105 million (S$141 million) in penalties.
The safety administration released a statement on Monday saying: "This is the first fatality we're aware of that may be related to this safety defect and vehicle recall."
It was not yet known if Yelchin had been aware of that recall or the issue, for which the company has not yet come up with a remedy.
The affected vehicles, which also include 2012-2014 Dodge Chargers and Chrysler 300s, use an unconventional lever to shift the automatic transmission. Instead of moving to a different position with each gear, the lever returns to a centre position. The driver must look at the shifter to make sure the proper gear is selected.
In a statement on Monday, Fiat Chrysler said it was premature to speculate on the cause, but officials "will be conducting a thorough investigation of this tragic incident". It also extended "its deepest sympathies to the family and friends of Mr Yelchin".
When the recall was announced this year, Fiat Chrysler said it was aware of 41 injuries related to the gear-shift problem.
After the April recall, it said in a notice sent to owners that "a permanent remedy for this condition is currently under development" and it hoped to "finalise" it by the fourth quarter. It warned owners, in the meantime, to use the parking brake and to always check that the vehicle was in the correct gear.
Since the recall was announced, the agency has received at least eight more complaints from owners of Grand Cherokees who said their vehicles had rolled away and crashed, although no injuries were reported.
Mr Clarence Ditlow, executive director of the Center for Auto Safety, a consumer advocacy group, said that until repairs are made, Fiat Chrysler should tell owners not to drive the vehicles and should provide loan vehicles.
Yelchin's death comes a month before the release of Star Trek Beyond, in which he played Chekov, the young Russian navigator of the starship USS Enterprise. The creators and cast paid tribute to him on Sunday, with producer J.J. Abrams posting on Twitter: "You were brilliant. You were funny as hell, and supremely talented. And you weren't here nearly long enough."
NEW YORK TIMES, REUTERS