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Crashworthiness - A Primer

Crashworthiness Dangers

when to consider
what is a crashworthiness case
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well known defects
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Specific Well-Known Defects

Post-Collision Fire | Tire Failure | SUV and Van Rollovers | Roof Crush | Restraint System Defects

Post-Collision Fire

Post-collision fuel-fed fire, due to puncture of the fuel tank during collisions, was one of the earliest and most widely publicized types of crashworthiness cases. Although much reduced in frequency, such cases still occur today.

Classic fuel-fed fire cases involve a catastrophic fire which occurs almost immediately upon impact, frequently engulfing the passenger compartment before the vehicle has come to a stop, and resulting in severe burn injury or death. Although the greatest publicity involved the Ford Pinto and the GM side-saddle light trucks, many other vehicles are subject to such events. Virtually all American-made passenger cars manufactured before the early 1980s placed fuel tanks in a vulnerable position behind the rear axle, subjecting them to grave danger in rear-end collisions. During the 1980s, the advent of front-wheel drive, and the corresponding placement of fuel tanks in more protected locations, greatly reduced the risk of fire for many vehicles. But, even recent models of full-size Ford Crown Victorias, Mercury Grand Marquis', and Lincoln Town Cars, as well as Ford Mustangs, are the subject of continuing fire, deaths, and injuries. The most recent publicity associated with fuel-fed fire cases involved Anderson v. GM in which a California jury returned a verdict for $4 billion in punitive damages involving a 1979 Chevrolet Malibu car in which an entire family was severely burned.

In contrast to the sudden, almost explosive development of the classic fuel-fed fire, there is a class of slowly developing post-collision fires which usually begin in the vicinity of the engine compartment and slowly engulf the passenger compartment. In cases in which an occupant has been trapped in the passenger compartment, these slowly developing fires can be equally as devastating as more traditional conflagrations.

In addition to passenger cars and light trucks, there has been considerable litigation over the fuel system integrity of heavy trucks. Many heavy trucks have side-saddle fuel tanks mounted in extremely vulnerable locations which can give rise to catastrophic results in the event of collision.

Any burn death or serious burn injury following a collision should be investigated as a potential crashworthiness case.


Tire Failure

Tire failures are widely known due to the recent news involving recalls of Firestone ATX and Wilderness tires used on Ford Explorer SUVs.

It is important to recognize that the problem and the defects are not limited to the tires which have been recalled, or to Ford and Firestone products.

The failures in the Ford-Firestone cases, and in most modern tire cases, involve a detreading failure of a steel-belted radial tire, in which the tread and, frequently, the outer steel belt separate, either partially or entirely, from the remainder of the tire. The tire may or may not lose air. The loss of tread may result in the loss of the driver's ability to control the directional stability of the vehicle, with a resulting collision, frequently, and especially in SUVs, in a rollover.

Tire detreading events are known to occur in virtually all types of modern steel belted radial tires made by all manufacturers. Although Firestone has received the most recent publicity, well-known cases have been prosecuted successfully against Michelin, Cooper, and other manufacturers. Any detread should be considered a potential crashworthiness case.

SUV and Van Rollovers

A high percentage of serious, injury-producing crashes involve SUVs, minivans or large 15-passenger vans, all of which frequently roll over during collisions.

Instability leading to rollover is a well-known defect which affects virtually all compact SUVs, minivans and 15-passenger vans. There have been numerous cases against almost all brands and model years of compact SUVs - Ford Bronco II, Ford Explorer, Isuzu Rodeo, Toyota 4-Runner, Jeep CJ, Chrysler minivans, and Ford Aerostar are only the most well-known. Ford, Chrysler, and GM 15-passenger vans are also the subject of repeated litigation.

In addition to the stability defect, many of these vehicles are known to have other defects which contribute to injury severity, both in the presence and absence of rollover. Ejections during rollover are very common in these vehicles due to restraint or door defects. Restraint systems that do not lock in rollovers, inertial seatbelt buckles that unlatch, seats that do not remain securely fastened to the floor and which destroy the effectiveness of the restraint system are among the known problems. Doors that do not remain closed (e.g. Chrysler liftgates and Explorer side doors) are known problems which affect main doors as well as tailgates and sliding side doors of many vehicles.

It may well require considerable expert accident reconstruction to determine whether stability was the actual cause of a specific rollover, but any catastrophic injury or death in an SUV, minivan, or 15-passenger van rollover should be viewed with suspicion, especially if ejection is involved. Immediate steps should be taken to determine seatbelt usage for the injured.


Roof Crush

Roof crush defects affect virtually any passenger car, SUV, minivan, or light truck sold in America.

FMVSS 216, the Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standard which applies to roof strength, allows vehicle roof structure to be so weak as to be a meaningless standard. Modern vehicles frequently comply with FMVSS 216 test requirements based on the strength provided by side window glass which is closed when the tests are conducted. When the glass shatters during a collision, the roof no longer provides even the minimal strength of the meaningless Federal standard.

As a result, it is common to find cars and trucks of virtually any make or model with the roof crushed to the top of the seats following a rollover.

One of the side effects of the widespread use of lap-shoulder belts is the tendency to cause the occupant to remain upright during a rollover. Studies show that, during rollover events, centrifugal force tends to position the head of the occupant against the roof rail. When the roof crushes, and the roof rail forcibly intrudes into the passenger compartment, compression loading of the neck axially to the spinal column can result in head injuries or neck fractures leading to death or quadriplegia.


Restraint System Defects

Modern automotive safety depends heavily on the proper functioning of the restraint system. This term includes, but is broader than, seatbelts. The restraint system also includes the seats, head restraints, airbags, portions of the steering column, instrument panel and doors, and various devices associated with these items. Various well-known defects are associated with almost all aspects of restraints systems in a wide variety of cars and trucks.

Inertial Unlatching - Under certain circumstances, the inertial forces in collisions can cause seatbelt buckles to become unlatched during the collision process. Lawyers have demonstrated the simple process in what manufacturers call a "parlor trick" by striking a latched buckle on the back and causing the inertial forces to unlatch the buckle, allowing the latch plate to fall free.

The actual process of inertial unlatching is substantially more complicated than the simple "parlor trick," and far more deadly. The manufacturers have claimed for many years that there is no documented case in which a buckle has actually unlatched in a crash, and succeeded in persuading NHTSA to make a finding that the buckles are not defective, and that there is no known case of buckle unlatching in a crash.

Recently, we forced General Motors to produce approximately 60 crash tests in which the unlatching of the GM - Allied Signal JDC buckle is documented on videotape. Even though actual unlatching can now be seen on video, proof that a particular buckle was latched prior to a collision and became unlatched during the collision process can be difficult. In some cases, we have used sophisticated computer aided kinematic reconstructions of the movements of the persons in the vehicle to demonstrate that the buckle must necessarily have been latched and then become unlatched in the particular collision.

Closely related to inertial unlatching is the phenomenon of "false latching." In this case, the buckle may be closed and appear to be latched when it is not. During a collision, the movement of the body, which is intended to be restrained by the belt, will pull the buckle free. Federal regulations require that buckles which are "false latched" must pull free at less than 5 pounds of pull, so that the simple "tug" which many people give a buckle after latching will pull the buckle free if it is not properly latched. Unfortunately, we have found buckles which required 30-45 pounds of pull to become free, a clear violation of the safety standards.

Retractor Lock-Up Failure During normal driving, seatbelts spool in and out from spring-loaded retractor reels which provide more length to accommodate movement while riding in the vehicle, and reel in the extra length when not needed. During a collision, locking mechanisms within the retractor are intended to sense the impending collision and to lock the belt so that it can restrain the occupant without reeling out.

There are various kinds of locking devices of varying sophistication and reliability. Unfortunately, it is all too common that the locking devices will fail to promptly and fully lock. This may result in a complete failure to provide restraint, or a failure to provide pelvic or torso restraint, or late or incomplete restraint. As a result, the occupant may receive far more severe injuries than appropriate for the severity of the collision.

There are various alternative designs to assure full and proper lock up. Most desirable is the use of pretensioners, which are devices to not only lock seatbelts but to affirmatively pull them tight in the face of impending collision. Pretensioners are fired electronically by signals from the sensors which sense impending collisions and fire air bags. The sensors may be located and calibrated to sense impact from varying directions, and to sense impending rollover.

Submarining Failure to properly design the restraint system may result in the occupant submarining under the lap portion of the seatbelt.

The lap belt portion of seatbelt should be designed to apply restraint across the heavy bony portions of the pelvis below the abdomen. During collisions, however, the pelvis and buttocks of the occupant tend to move forward and downward; with poorly designed restraint systems, the pelvis will move forward under the belt (submarine) which will now apply force through the abdomen to the soft tissues of the abdomen and the spinal column behind. These structures are not strong enough to withstand such loading, and the belt itself may cause serious or fatal injury. Severe bruising and laceration of internal organs may occur, sometimes including internal hemorrhaging which may be fatal. Major damage to the lumbar spinal column and spinal cord may result in paraplegia or other neurological damage affecting the lower limbs and bladder or bowel control.

Submarining is the result of improper design of seatbelt anchor points, which affect belt angles, and improper seat design. Properly designed seat cushions and seat pans underlying the cushions assist in providing restraint to the pelvis and buttocks to prevent submarining. Failure to provide this important restraint can allow the belt to maim or kill the occupant it should have protected.

Injuries focused on the abdomen or spinal column in occupants who were known to be belted, point strongly toward seatbelt injuries and should be considered potential crashworthiness cases.

Poor Belt Fit - Women and Children Often related to submarining is the problem of poor belt fit, especially for small women and children. Belts and seats are frequently designed to fit 50-95th percentile men, although they are required by law to fit 5th percentile female through 95th percentile men in the driver¹s seat, and 6-year-old children through 95th percentile men in rear seats. When seats and belts do not properly fit small women and children, the poor fit can contribute to submarining. Lap belt placement which may be adequate for a 50th percentile male may be too high for a small female or 10-year-old child, thus contributing to submarining and abdominal or spinal injury.

Poor belt fit can cause other problems as well. Torso belt anchor placement that is excessively high or forward in comparison to the size of the occupant can result in failure to provide proper torso restraint, especially in frontal collisions which have a substantial offset or angular component. The occupant can roll or slip out of the torso belt with resultant head impact into structures in front of the occupant.

Notwithstanding the requirements to fit women and children, many vehicles are designed with little or no testing of belt fit and little or no consideration of crash performance on women and children. Recently, NHTSA has published a Parents¹ Guide to Child Restraints which advocates use of booster seats to make belts fit children too old for child seats, but too small to fit adult seatbelts - generally from ages 4 to 14. Unfortunately, vehicle manufacturers only rarely supply booster seats or other devices to fit seatbelts to children in the "forgotten age" bracket.

As mentioned above, injuries related to the abdomen or spinal column point strongly toward seatbelt injuries, especially in women and children. In addition, unexplained major torso, facial, neck, or head injuries in women and children should be investigated as possible crashworthiness failures.

Lap-Only Belts Not until 1988 did Federal standards require lap-shoulder belts in the rear outboard seating positions of American cars and trucks. Prior to that model year, almost all cars and trucks sold in the United States provided lap-only belts in all rear seating positions.

Still today, most manufacturers provide lap-only belts in the rear center seating position. The absence of the torso restraint exposes the occupant to all the dangers of an unrestrained head and upper body. Additionally, the belts frequently allow submarining. The combination of no torso restraint and submarining commonly results in abdominal and spinal column injuries resulting in severe internal injuries, including bleeding which may be fatal, or spinal cord injury with resulting paraplegia or paraparisis.

Injuries from any of these should be suspect:

Energy Management Loops Several manufacturers incorporate so-called "energy management loops" into their seatbelts. These are actual loops of seatbelt which are stitched into the belt with stitching designed to rip out when collision force loading is applied to the belt, which will result in lengthening the belt by several inches. The additional length creates slack in the belt which results in some failure of restraint which may be injurious. Additionally, in some situations the slack can allow the occupant to slide free of the belt and to be ejected or thrown forcefully around inside the vehicle.

Child Seats State laws requiring, and public relations campaigns encouraging, the use of child seats for children under 4 years of age have highlighted the generally poor design of the available child seats. Many child seats simply do not do a good job of protecting children from injury. Many are complicated to install and to use correctly, and are not accompanied by adequate warnings and instructions. Devices required to be in vehicles to facilitate installation of child seats are not always available.

Young children are especially subject to devastating injuries in collisions due to the fragility of their young body structures. Any severe injury to a child which occurs when the child has been located in the rear seat and is using the restraints available should be suspect.

Airbags Airbag injuries are of two types:

* Failure to deploy
* Injury due to deployment

Before considering a failure to deploy case, it must be remembered that frontal airbags are designed to deploy only in collisions which are fairly severe and generally frontal in direction; further, airbags are considered to be supplemental to seatbelts by both the industry and the public.

Cases in which the claim is that the occupant suffered a minor to moderate facial injury which would have been prevented by air bag deployment are generally not viable, both because the injury is not sufficiently severe to support a crashworthiness case, and because the collision severity may not have been of the severity intended to trigger the airbags. This is especially true if the injured person was not using available seatbelts.

On the other hand, there are occasional severe collisions in which belted occupants suffer severe injuries and in which the airbags never deploy, or only deploy after the vehicle has come to rest. Such cases will require detailed biomechanical reconstruction of the event, to determine whether the injuries would have been prevented by proper function of the airbag, but should be considered as potential crashworthiness cases.

Injuries due to airbag deployment are an admitted and documented phenomenon, but the cases are extremely complex and hard-fought. It is recognized that the force of airbag deployment, especially for small women sitting close to the dashboard or steering wheel, may be sufficient to cause death. This is also true of children sitting in the front seat, and is the reason for the campaign to seat all children in the back seat.

The cases are especially difficult due to the complexity of the engineering issues of alternative design and the reconstruction and biomechanical issues required to establish causation. Nevertheless, death due to closed head injury of an occupant who was properly belted, in a frontal collision, should be considered suspect, especially in the case of a small female seated in a forward position.

Lack of Head Restraint Head restraints have been required in passenger cars by Federal regulation since 1968, and in light trucks since 1993. Prior to those years, manufacturers almost uniformly did not install head restraints. When installed, many head restraints are adjustable, and are routinely used at such a low adjustment as to be ineffective.

Most frequently, lack of head restraint results only in soft tissue injuries to the neck which are not sufficiently severe to justify a crashworthiness claim. However, in rare cases, lack of head restraint may result in a broken neck and quadriplegia.

Seatback Failure The seat, including the seatback, is an essential part of the restraint system, especially in rear-end collisions. For many years, virtually all manufacturers provided seatbacks which were so weak as to fail in moderate speed rear-end impacts. The fact of failure was demonstrated repeatedly in the manufacturers¹ rear-end crash tests.

When seatback failure occurs in a rear-end collision, the occupant is catapulted rearward in the vehicle; seatbelt restraint becomes ineffective, and the occupant is subjected to the danger of forcibly impacting the interior of the vehicle with the head, which may result in severe head injury or neck fracture which may cause death or quadriplegia. When other occupants are in the rear seats, the front occupant may forcefully contact the rear occupant, resulting in injuries to both.

Door Opening Doors should remain closed during collisions and, ideally, should be openable thereafter. Federal standards have recognized this principle for many years by imposing certain strength requirements for the door latches of side doors.

Unfortunately, many doors of many vehicles do not remain closed during collisions, due to a number of various defects. Type I door latches which open during collisions have been a source of litigation for many years. Many vehicles use rods to connect the inner door handles with the actual door latch; during collisions, collision forces on the rod can unlatch the door even if locked (e.g. Ford Explorer compression rod cases). Side doors of vans, and the liftgates of vans and SUVs frequently use latches of poor design which routinely open during collision (e.g. Chrysler minivan liftgate litigation).

When the doors open, especially during rollovers or side impacts, the occupants are exposed to the danger of ejection.


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Our web site describes some of the cases that the attorneys of Perry & Haas have worked on in the past.

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