After a well-known Montgomery County educator was poisoned inside his home, his family is joining others across the country to warn others and force carmakers to make a change.
A new class action lawsuit potentially affecting millions of drivers across the country is linked to the death of one of Montgomery County’s most well-known educators – and his children want you to make sure what happened to their father doesn’t happen to you.
Dr. Harry Pitt spent his life trying to teach important lessons. “His whole thing would be the lesson, learn the lesson,” his son Joel Pitt told us. “Don’t let this happen again.”
For almost 40 years, Dr. Pitt worked as a teacher, principal and ultimately one of Montgomery County’s most well-respected school superintendents. “I mean, everybody just loved him,” his son Jeff Pitt said.
His sons said even though their father retired in 1991, he was still full of energy – golfing, traveling, even entering weightlifting competitions at 80 years old. “He looked young, acted young, he felt young,” Joel Pitt said.
Until the night he taught us all a lesson no one ever wanted to learn.
In December 2011, Dr. Pitt went home, parked in his garage and accidentally left the car running – all night long.
“He went to bed and he didn’t wake up,” Jeff Pitt said.
Dr. Pitt died from accidental carbon monoxide poisoning. Odorless, colorless toxic fumes rose from the garage in his town home to the bedroom two floors above.
A New Class Action Lawsuit
He drove a car with a keyless ignition and attorney Martis Alex has now filed a class action lawsuit against ten automakers who build keyless ignition vehicles. “They represented that the cars were safe,” she said. “The cars are not safe.”
She’s accusing them of false advertising and deceptive practices.
Long-time safety advocate Sean Kane consulted on the suit and said, “What we’re seeing here is really an inherent design flaw.”
Kane explained manufacturers fail to take human behavior into account. With an old fashioned key, when you pull it out, the engine turns off.
But if you never have to pull a key out, Kane said, you can forget to push the button, especially now that so many vehicles have very quiet engines. “They have made it very easy for you to inadvertently leave the car running and not know it,” he said.
The lawsuit demands carmakers install an “auto off” feature to kill the engine if it idles for an extended period. “If they can put auto-off on your interior lights to save you inconvenience, why can’t we put auto-off on the engine to save your life?” Alex asked. “It is a simple software fix.”
14 Deaths So Far
Kane pointed out, “The driver absolutely has a responsibility” to turn the car off but said, “when you look at a design, and you see people continuing to make an error, you have a problem with your design.”
The lawsuit cites 13 deaths nationwide. In the weeks since she filed the lawsuit, Alex said she’s learned of another fatality, prompting her to ask, “How many more deaths are we waiting for?”
The News4 I-Team reached out to all the carmakers named in the lawsuit and their responses varied from not making a comment because of the litigation to what Fiat Chrylser wrote in a statement, saying its “U.S. vehicles meet or exceed all applicable federal and safety standards.”
In a separate statement, Ford said, “The keyless ignition system has proven to be a safe and reliable innovation” and their vehicles “alert drivers when the driver’s door is opened and the engine’s running.”
Finding Their Own Fixes
The Pitt brothers said they don’t think a beeping noise is enough because many people are hard of hearing and many can become easily distracted by cellphones, kids or even getting the groceries when they exit their car.
As a result, the brothers created their own “work-arounds” to feel safe. Jeff Pitt keeps his radio on all the time. It’s his way of knowing if the engine is running. Joel Pitt paid extra for a Mercedes solely because it allows you to swap out the keyless feature for an actual key.
They both installed carbon monoxide detectors in their homes and strongly urge everyone to do the same. But Joel Pitt told us that’s not the ultimate solution.
Instead, the brothers said they know what the superintendent in their father would tell them. “He would be very upset about this because it’s something that was fixable and avoidable,” Joel Pitt explained. He said they also know the teacher in their father would demand they spread the word to “prevent somebody else’s family from having this kind of loss because it’s unnecessary. It’s just unnecessary.”
Statements From Carmakers
It is not possible for us to comment once a matter is in litigation.
Fiat Chrysler Automobiles (FCA)
Customers are urged to heed the shutoff instructions in their owners' manuals. (See below.) Every FCA US LLC vehicle is engineered to exacting standards following rigorous testing. FCA US vehicles meet or exceed all applicable federal safety standards.
Ford takes the safety of our customers very seriously; the keyless ignition system has proven to be a safe and reliable innovative feature that has been well-received by customers. Ford vehicles equipped with keyless ignition alert drivers when the driver’s door is opened and the vehicle’s engine is running.
GM is deferring comment to Wade Newton at the Alliance of Automotive Manufacturers
Auto Alliance, Wade Newton
Auto safety is our top priority, so the industry continues working with a standards-setting body to further develop best practices. Current keyless ignition system designs generally follow the recommended practices of the Society of Automotive Engineers, which includes recommendations that deal with operating logic, indication of vehicle ignition/control status and the physical control characteristics of keyless ignitions systems. The recommendations also address uniform labeling – all of this so consumers can have an even better understanding of keyless systems functions.
Our vehicles contain the latest in safety features. In fact, unlike many of the other keyless start systems on the market, ours can be operated as a normal keyed ignition system simply by removing the Stop/Start button or using the standard ignition switch (depending on the model). So customers can essentially choose how they wish to operate the system.
Nissan cannot comment on the subject of current litigation, so we respectfully decline comment on the topic at this time.
We are cooperating with NHTSA on their research.
We have no statement or comment to share at this time.
Volkswagen Group of America and its brands consider the safety and satisfaction of its consumers and passengers as a top priority. All brands within the Volkswagen Group are engineered to meet or exceed all government regulations. We are unable to comment on specific litigation.