Chrysler Driver Seeks Resolution For Rusty Minivan

Rust, rot and corrosion. The tell-tale signs of a nasty problem NBC 5 Investigates first exposed in January lurking underneath hundreds of 2004 and 2005 Chrysler Pacificas.

Scores of drivers complained the entire engine cradle, or sub-frame of their Pacificas, was rusted and rotting. The fix wasn't cheap -- about $2,700, and the majority of car owners reported that Chrysler refused to pay.

The car maker does agree there is a defect caused by the engine cradle's coating thickness, but only in approximately 7,000 vehicles made during a six-week timeframe -- between February 23, 2004 and March 31, 2004.

Despite more than 360 complaints lodged by owners - some of them warned by mechanics to stop driving their Pacificas because of the danger -- the government agency in charge of highway safety, NHTSA, said it didn't see a pattern of a safety defect and took no action.

A decision that doesn't sit well with Joan Claybrook, the former head of the federal safety agency.

"NHTSA is completely wrong. Rust is a safety defect," Claybrook says.

Now a safety activist, Claybrook accuses NTHSA of falling down on the job.

"NHTSA issued a ruling in the legal office 30 years ago that said you do not need a lot of dead bodies lying all over to determine if there's a defect," Claybrook said.

She compares this defect with the deadly GM faulty ignition switch, in which NHTSA is also blamed for inaction.

"This is very similar to the GM case, where the agency had all this information and knew that there was a problem and said, 'Well, it's not enough information,'" Claybrook said.

Since our report aired at the end of January, a steady stream of Pacifica owners continued to write to the government. Some of them pleaded for assistance from Chrysler, others warned of impending danger.

"When you have a rusted sub-frame, it crushes up very fast," Claybrook explains, "It means the engine can fall out and cause a horrific crash on the highway."

Which is exactly what Stella Munoz is afraid of. The Hanover Park school custodian says the rot under her Pacifica has turned her life upside down.

"They put it up on the lift and I was devastated," Munoz recalls. After her independent mechanic found the problem, she went to her Chrysler dealership and couldn't believe what she heard next.

"I asked them if the car was safe to drive and they said "Yes it is, but don't hit any potholes. I was floored. I didn't know what to say to them."

With help refused from both the dealer and Chrysler, and a $2,700 estimate to fix the car, Munoz says she was stuck, and afraid to drive her car.

"I prayed to God to get me to work safely and get me home safely," Munoz says.

When we first contacted Chrysler about Munoz' case, a spokesperson questioned whether she'd been aggressive in pursuit of a resolution. When we asked if it was a necessity for drivers with a safety concern to be pushy to get help, we were told drivers must be adamant the company open a claim for their case.

Munoz says being aggressive is not her strong suit. She simply had faith the company would do the right thing.

"It is going to take a life to be lost in order for Chrysler to do anything about this? That is the scary part," Munoz says.

After our inquiry, Chrysler changed its decision and paid for all but $100 of Munoz' repairs.

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