SOUTHFIELD, Mich. – A 70-year-old man was sentenced Wednesday to 10 days in jail for a fiery crash that killed a pregnant Detroit-area woman who was driving a Jeep Liberty that had been recalled because of the placement of the gas tank.
Clarence Heath's Cadillac rear-ended Kayla White's SUV during afternoon rush hour on a suburban Detroit freeway in November. The 2003 Jeep exploded in flames, killing the 23-year-old.
"I can't imagine the feelings they have by losing their daughter and the unborn child," Heath told a judge, referring to White's family.
"Kayla White had her whole life in front of her," he said. "I'm approaching the twilight (and) would gladly have exchanged my life for hers."
Southfield Judge William Richards said the remorse was "genuine." But he said the crash was no accident, noting that Heath was probably driving just below 70 mph when he was distracted during heavy traffic. White's car had stopped or was barely moving.
"He was going far too fast for conditions. ... This would have been a tremendously serious accident with tremendously serious injury even if Ms. White's car had not erupted in flames," the judge said.
Heath, who pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor, causing a death while driving, was sent to jail for 10 days with credit for a day already served. He was placed on probation for two years. He has a record of drunken driving but alcohol wasn't a factor in the crash.
White is one of more than 70 people killed in fires involving older Jeeps with plastic fuel tanks mounted behind the rear axle. Fiat Chrysler recalled 1.56 million Jeeps in 2013. The remedy involves installing trailer hitches on the rear as an extra layer of protection.
White's Jeep hadn't been repaired at the time of the crash, although experts say it's uncertain if a hitch could have prevented the fire based on the speed of Heath's car.
Attorney Gerald Thurswell accompanied White's family to court. He repeated his pledge to file a lawsuit against Fiat Chrysler in the months ahead.
Heath "caused the accident, but he did not cause her death," Thurswell said outside court. "The fire caused her death."
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