When someone is severely injured or killed in a motor vehicle accident, there may be a relevant safety defect that caused the severity of injury.
We all know the typical scenario of a car crash accident. These daily tragedies are often briefly noted in the newspaper or on tv news. The vehicle crash epidemic continues incessantly, with an annual U.S. toll of about 35,000 deaths and hundreds of thousands of crippling injuries. The “accident” occurs, occupants are critically injured or killed, the wrecked cars are towed away to junkyards and crushers, the auto insurance payments might kick in, and life moves on. Except, of course, for the individuals who are horribly injured. As well as for the grieving families who have lost a loved one in that moment of destiny.
Might there be a safety defect?
All too often, no one thinks to examine the vehicle to determine if a safety defect may have significantly contributed to the cause of the accident or the severity of injuries. The injured or deceased victim and their family all want to put the anguish behind them. And if they hire a lawyer, the chances are that any claims will focus on the other driver and on insurance coverage. Too many lawyers and law firms are uninformed about potential vehicle safety defects. Or they may be intimidated by a lack of experience, resources, or be fearful of taking on a major vehicle manufacturer with all their experience, resources, manpower, and ability to drag out the litigation process for years. From my perspective, less than 10-percent of the meritorious cases are ever properly developed. This implies that too many victims never get their deserved measure of justice.
The importance of “crashworthiness”
The ability of the vehicle itself to protect the occupants in a collision or rollover accident is referred to as “crashworthiness”. This feature should be inherently designed into every vehicle. Since the late 1960’s, there have been Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards (FMVSS) that set a minimum level of performance in various categories. These have included how strong the roof must be, fuel tank must not leak, and the side impact intrusion must be minimal. This is evaluated in various crash tests.
Driver conduct and circumstances such as storms, traffic and road situations, may cause or contribute to an “accident” occurring. However, the systems design principle called “fail-safe” means that despite whatever causes the accident (the failure of the system), it should nonetheless be safe for the vehicle occupants. That’s why vehicles are supposed to have a strong protective “cage” design to maintain the “survival space”, plus seatbelts and airbags to restrain and cushion you in a crash.
Safer designs were feasible but ignored
Often, the automaker will have known the inherent dangers of the unsafe or defective design well in advance, but opted not to utilize safer designs nor to warn the unsuspecting public, nor to notify NHTSA and recall the vehicles and retrofit safer upgrades.
A current example is the fiasco over the GM Cobalt-Ion ignition switch, which GM and its supplier Delphi knew about for ten years, but nonetheless concealed from the public and NHTSA. The switch had a short plunger and weak coil spring that failed to maintain the plunger in the detent groove. This caused it to jump from “on” to “off” or “accessory” position when the keys were jostled, thereby cutting off the engine, power steering, and power brakes. That led to crashes in which the airbags failed to deploy, with resulting severe injuries and deaths. Recent Congressional Hearings forced the revelations of the cover-up… the needless concealment, delays, and denials by GM, and failure to properly notify NHTSA and conduct prompt recalls. The safer plunger and spring would have cost 57 cents!
Too many cars, vans, SUVs, and pickups have roofs that are much too weak. They easily buckle and crush downward in rollover accidents. You don’t see the roof structure, because it’s hidden from view behind the headliner. It’s tragic that about 9,000 Americans are killed every year in rollover accidents. These accidents are the Number One cause of quadriplegics. Strength-to-Weight Ratio (SWR) is a measure of roof strength in a test where a metal plate slowly pushes down on the roof. The higher the SWR number, the stronger the roof. So a vehicle roof with a SWR of at least 5.0 or preferably higher is what vehicle manufacturers should design to, but they typically don’t. And there’s still no mandatory dynamic rollover test, at any speed.
Side structures to prevent intrusion
A vehicle needs strong side structures to help deflect the vehicle away from side impacts with poles and trees and the fronts of other cars that may strike it. Strong sides are also critically important to help prevent or minimize penetration into the vehicle interior “survival space.”. Too many cars have short subframe members that are too far inboard from the vehicle sides, with structural “gaps” in the mid-body region. A safer alternative is to approximate a full-perimeter frame, with box-section lateral cross-members.
Some may remember the fiery Ford Pinto of the ‘70‘s, with its fuel tank easily crushed because it was near the rear bumper. Or the 1973-1987 GM-Chevy pickups with their fuel tank dangerously unprotected outboard of the frame rails. There were many other vehicles by Ford, GM, Chrysler, Toyota, and others that also had their fuel tank vulnerably exposed. Thankfully, by the mid ‘90’s, most vehicles were finally adopting the safer location forward of the rear axle and inboard of the frame rails… but some unsafe behind-axle designs languished into the 2000 era, like the Jeep Cherokee and Liberty models, Ford Crown Victoria, and Ford Mustang (from 1964 until 2005). These are still involved in rear-impact fiery crashes.
Windows of tempered glass allow ejection
In rollover accidents, the side windows of many vehicles often shatter completely out. This creates large window openings through which the occupants can be partially or completely ejected from the vehicle, causing severe to fatal injuries. The defect is using tempered glass, which shatters much too easily into hundreds of small pebbles of glass, versus safer laminated glass… a sandwich of glass-plastic-glass that’s much like the windshield. Laminated glass stays intact, with its tough plastic middle layer serving as a “life-net” to keep you safely inside the rolling vehicle.
Meritorious cases stimulate safer vehicles
Automotive expert witnesses and trial lawyers can serve on behalf of the injured victims of vehicle accidents. This includes assessing whether there were safety defects that caused the accident, or caused the severity of injuries to the occupants. The pursuit of a meritorious product liability case can help provide justice and compensation for the injured victims of needlessly dangerous vehicles. Such litigation also serves as a constructive stimulus to vehicle manufacturers to improve the safety of their future vehicles to avoid the cost burdens of defending the lawsuits and paying the settlements and verdicts. Such litigation thus helps to advance the compassionate societal goal of preventing needless injuries in the future.
The worldwide death toll due to the motor vehicle is now about 1.3-million persons killed each year, plus millions more who suffer permanent and disabling injuries. The incessant toll of deaths and injuries can be reduced… and must be reduced.
This highly qualified automotive expert witness is a national court-qualified auto safety expert. For over 40 years he has been evaluating accident vehicles as to their crash-worthiness. He has testified at Congressional Hearings, taught a seminar series at the University of Maryland, lectured at colleges and to professional groups, appeared on many national tv programs, authored many articles, and has served as an expert in product-liability cases. He is the founder and director of the recently established Institute for Car Crash Justice.
B.A., University of California Los Angeles
Member, Society of Automotive Engineers
Member, Industrial Designers Society of America
Member, American Society of Safety Engineers
Former, Staff Industrial Designer and Human Factors Engineer, Dunlap and Associates, Inc.
Former, Product Planning Coordinator, Industrial Electronic Engineers, Inc.
Current, Owner and Principal, vehicle safety design consulting firm