The Death Wobble: FCA Sued Over Alleged Jeep Wrangler JK Steering Issues

Matt Posky
by Matt Posky

A Jeep Wrangler owner has accused Fiat Chrysler Automobiles of ignoring an alleged safety issue with the vehicle’s steering system; one that leads to the notorious “death wobble.”

The term is one Jeep fans are already familiar with and basically entails sudden, violent vibrations from front-end steering components, usually taking place on the highway. On Wednesday, a lawsuit filed on behalf of New Jersey resident Clair Reynolds claimed FCA delivered a “defectively designed and/or manufactured front axle and damping system” allowing for the dreaded wobble to occur after “encountering road variations” at speed.

While the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration has never issued a recall related to the issue, it’s familiar with the phenomenon and has been pressured by safety advocates to investigate since before 2012. But previous studies into the wobble found it relatively difficult to replicate, and no serious injuries have stemmed from it. Reynolds’ legal council says that doesn’t cut it.

The lawsuit acknowledges that Fiat Chrysler has discussed the wobble in the past but also accuses it of misleading customers instead of fixing the alleged problem: “Rather than address it — or disclose its possibility and/or warn drivers at the point of sale — FCA simply claims in a news article that the ‘Death Wobble’ is not a ‘safety issue’ and that it ‘can happen with any vehicle that has a solid front axle (rather than an independent front suspension), such as the Wrangler.'”

According to The Detroit News, Fiat Chrysler said it has not yet been served with the lawsuit and therefore cannot comment on its allegations. “We note, however, that any manufacturer vehicle equipped with a solid axle can experience steering system vibration and, if experienced, it is routinely corrected,” the automaker said.

While the solid-axle rebuff sounds a little weak, it is technically the truth. That’s one reason trucks with suspensions modified for off-road use often exhibit the phenomenon. A bad bushing, a loose sway bar, or inappropriate caster angle can exacerbate the issue quite a bit. In truth, there are a myriad of items that can cause the wobble, but it typically starts the same way: One tire will begin oscillating after encountering a pothole or hump in the road and the rest of the vehicle begins shaking violently as the whole front axle begins to shimmy.

Drivers caught off guard will no doubt find the experience terrifying. But it can usually be solved by bringing down the vehicle’s speed and effectively eliminating the suspension’s ability to continue vibrating.

FCA has suggested that numerous complaints related to steering vibrations are linked to poorly installed or maintained aftermarket equipment, as well as damaged or worn steering components and incorrect tire pressure. But the suit is seeking class-action status for all 2015-2018 Jeep Wranglers, with the onus entirely on the manufacturer. Reynolds’ council also says Jeep’s current solution of offering customers a replacement steering damper (if the vehicle is under warranty) has been insufficient.

From The Detroit News:

The lawsuit seeks damages for affected drivers in the form of a buyback program that requires FCA to pay drivers for defective vehicles and compensation for the loss of value to the vehicles. It also wants drivers to be provided with replacement vehicles while their repairs are pending.

The lawsuit also seeks punitive damages “for FCA’s knowing fraud that put drivers and members of the public nationwide at risk;” calls for regulators to order the company to issue a recall.

[Images: FCA]

Matt Posky
Matt Posky

A staunch consumer advocate tracking industry trends and regulation. Before joining TTAC, Matt spent a decade working for marketing and research firms based in NYC. Clients included several of the world’s largest automakers, global tire brands, and aftermarket part suppliers. Dissatisfied with the corporate world and resentful of having to wear suits everyday, he pivoted to writing about cars. Since then, that man has become an ardent supporter of the right-to-repair movement, been interviewed on the auto industry by national radio broadcasts, driven more rental cars than anyone ever should, participated in amateur rallying events, and received the requisite minimum training as sanctioned by the SCCA. Handy with a wrench, Matt grew up surrounded by Detroit auto workers and managed to get a pizza delivery job before he was legally eligible. He later found himself driving box trucks through Manhattan, guaranteeing future sympathy for actual truckers. He continues to conduct research pertaining to the automotive sector as an independent contractor and has since moved back to his native Michigan, closer to where the cars are born. A contrarian, Matt claims to prefer understeer — stating that front and all-wheel drive vehicles cater best to his driving style.

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  • Mike A Davis Mike A Davis on Jun 16, 2019

    I have experienced death wobble and during the period of time where the dealer said "all set now" but was not, my blood pressure was very high. Death wobble is not difficult to diagnose, and there are a few very good you tube videos on the subject. Unfortunately, the Jeep dealership (s) don't know what to do, other then throw parts at the problem. Based on the issue, there should be a very specific directive and approach to the issue, not just put in a new steering damper. BTW, my 2008, 2 door, JK X Wrangler is bone stock, so the comments about only on lifted or modified Jeeps, just isn't true. Fortunately, I had purchased an extended warranty and most everything was covered. My concern to the "no injuries due to death wobble" claim is that if the vehicle went off the road and rolled over and the occupant(s) were injured or worse, there would be no evidence as to the cause of the accident. Also, there is no preventive process to have a repair shop check and repair/replace worn or damaged bushings or control arms etc. Trust me, you don't want to experience death wobble ever especially at highway speeds. It is very dangerous.. Shame on FCA and Jeep for not stepping up in a preventative way. BTW, one episode of death wobble destroys other suspension parts. That's how violent the event is on car and driver.

  • OzCop OzCop on Jun 21, 2019

    I actually hated wagon duty during my police career due to suspension and steering wobble in our E 250 Paddy Wagons...When new, they weren't too bad, but get some miles and a bit of age on them, they were a challenge over rough roads...

  • Kwik_Shift_Pro4X Defender looks way better than the Bronco in both 2-door and 4-door.
  • ToolGuy I found this particular episode to be incredibly offensive.I am shocked that eBay Motors is supporting this kind of language and attitudes in 2024.I will certainly keep this in mind next time I am choosing where to buy auto parts (I buy a LOT of auto parts).
  • SaulTigh When I was young in the late 80's one of my friends had the "cool dad." You know the guy, first to buy a Betamax and a C-band satellite dish. Couple of stand up arcade games in the den. Bought my friend an Atari 2600 as soon as they came out. He had two of these crap heaps. One that only ran half the time and one for parts in the yard. My middle school brain though he was the most awesome dad ever, buying us pizza and letting us watch R rated movies recorded on free HBO weekend. At the time I though he was much better than my boring father.Now with adult hindsight, I now know he was "dad who should have taken better care of his family" and not had so many toys.
  • Dave Has to be Indy 500. Many more leaders and front passes than NASCAR, and Monaco is unwatchable with the inability to pass on that circuit.
  • Jeff How did the discussion get from an article about a 56 billion dollar pay package for Elon Musk to a proposal to charge a per mile tax on EVs in California or paying increase registration on vehicles to make up for lost gas tax revenue? I thought such a discussion would better fit Matt's Gas Wars series.