Specific Well-Known Defects
Post-Collision Fire | Tire
Failure | SUV and Van Rollovers | Roof
Crush | Restraint System Defects
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
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
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
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 defects affect virtually any
passenger car, SUV, minivan, or light truck sold
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
When the doors open, especially during rollovers
or side impacts, the occupants are exposed to the danger
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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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