For the past several decades, it has been seemingly common knowledge (and strongly recommended by various experts) that the safest place for a child to ride in a car is the back seat. However, litigation in the past few years has suggested that backseat passengers – both adults and children – can still face significant danger due to defects in car seat backs. Defective car seat backs may not always be able to withstand the impact of a collision, resulting in devastating and severe injuries to passengers, particularly those seated in the back. There have been hundreds of reported back seat injuries and even deaths, including several multi-million dollar plaintiff verdicts. Yet automobile companies are not adequately addressing the issue, with many saying the federal safety standards are to blame. Without any meaningful overhauls of the required safety standards, it is likely that car seat defects can lead to significant litigation in the next few years.
How Can Car Seat Backs Be Defective?
The extent of damage that can be done during a car collision or accident depends on basic principles of physics and inertia. When a speeding car suddenly stops, the passengers continue to travel forward, which is the reason that cars are equipped with airbags and seatbelts. Likewise, during a collision, car seats are supposed to withstand the sudden impact and should remain upright and intact. However, the seats can fail, break, detach, or collapse if defectively manufactured or improperly installed.
A number of serious injuries can result from seat back defects. Most commonly, injuries are sustained to the rear passengers from being trapped or crushed by the weight of the front passenger seat and the front seat occupant, resulting in blunt force trauma to the head and other body parts. Passengers can be ejected from the vehicle or the driver can lose control. If any part of the seat detaches, it can also act as a dangerous projectile.
The risk of injury to children is significantly increased in these scenarios, with one study conducted by the Association for the Advancement of Automotive Medicine indicating that the presence of a deformed seat immediately in front of the child more than doubles the risk of injury. Defective seats were associated with more severe crash events overall. Out of 100 individuals who were severely injured or killed from seatback failures since 1989, the majority were children. In the past 15 years, 17 children have died from such incidents.
A number of automobile manufacturers have issued recalls due to fault seat backs. In May 2017, Ford recalled 2,200 SUVs and trucks due to improper welding of the seat. In November 2018, Honda recalled 800,000 Odyssey minivans, affecting model years 2011 to 2017, because the seats were not properly latched and could tip forward, causing injury. A number of other automobile manufacturers, such as Audi, Toyota, Mercury, Tesla, and Nissan have also issued recalled for seat back failures.
Despite these findings, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, an agency that is a part of the Department of Transportation, and responsible for drafting and enforcing the Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards, has not amended its safety requirements to address this issue. A spokesperson for the NHTSA stated that the agency “was considering changes but said it was a complicated issue with different opinions on what, if anything, should be done.”
The Litigation History
A few multi-million dollar plaintiff awards may change the tide for car seat safety. In 2016, a Texas jury awarded a $124.5 million verdict to one family after their 7-year old son was severed injured in a seatback failure car accident. Jesse Rivera Jr. was sitting behind his father in the family’s Audi sedan when the car was rear-ended. The driver’s seat broke, launching Jesse Sr. into his son. Jesse Jr. suffers from permanent brain damage, partial paralysis, and some eyesight loss due to the crash. The family sued Audi for damages.
During a deposition, Audi’s engineer testified that their cars were designed so that the backseat passenger could “support the front seat with his knees.” Audi argued that the car seats were designed to absorb an impact of a collision, although crash test videos evidencing the seats collapsing proved the contrary. Audi’s seats did, in fact, meet or exceed the federal safety standard for strength. However, independent accident experts have argued that “the standard is so low even a banquet chair could pass.” Ultimately, the jury ruled in favor of the plaintiffs and found that Jesse Jr’s injuries resulted from Audi’s gross negligence, attributing 55% of the responsibility to the company.
In a similar case last year, a Dallas jury awarded a family $242 million in damages after their two small children suffered permanent brain damage during a seatback failure. The Reavis family’s Lexus abruptly stopped to avoid hitting a car in front of them and was hit from behind. Due to the impact, the back window of the car blew out and the children fell unconscious. After extensive surgery, medically induced comas, and a month in the hospital, the two children – ages 3 and 5 at the time – suffer from permanent brain injuries. The family was shocked and confused as to the severity of their children’s injuries, since the accident itself was not strong enough to deploy the airbags and the front side passengers walked away with minimal injuries.
After crash tests were conducted, it was determined that the force of the impact caused the front seats to recline. The parents’ bodies fell back into the back seats, colliding with the children. During their lawsuit against Lexus and Toyota (the owner of Lexus), the family’s attorney sought to establish that the company was well-aware of the potential for seatback failures, pointing to a 60 Minutes story in 1992 that highlighted the serious injuries that can result when the driver collides with the back seat. The plaintiff’s expert determined that the driver who hit the family was traveling at about 45 miles per hour, negating Toyota’s claim that the injuries were due to the rare severity of the accident opposed to a product defect. The jury found that the car’s defects were unreasonably dangerous and did cause the children’s injuries. The verdict against Toyota, which was subsequently reduced by the judge to $209 million, marks the second-largest personal injury verdict in Dallas county history.
How Can the Experts Weigh In?
Expert testimony was critical in both of these verdicts and will play a pivotal role in any future seatback failure litigation. As an initial matter, an accident reconstruction expert is necessary to determine the circumstances of the automobile accident. Utilizing principles of physics, speed, crush analysis, and energy analysis, an accident reconstruction expert can determine the velocity of the vehicles, the angles of the impact, and the direct cause of damages. Accidents can be visually reconstructed through the use of aids such as diagrams, life-size automobile models, and crash test videos.
In addition, mechanical engineers are necessary to prove whether the design of the seatback was defective, particularly in light of the argument that the automotive industry is aware of this defect and can fix it. As Frank Navin, a professor of engineering at the University of British Columbia who has studied and written about seat back strength, states: “There is no reason on God’s green earth that we cannot design against that sort of thing. I personally feel the North American [auto] industry has been somewhat negligent…It is not that they can’t do it; it will simply cut into the profits of a vehicle if they do it.” As Douglas P. Romilly, another mechanical engineering professor and seatback researcher notes, automakers are “more than capable” of improving the design of seats to increase safety.
There are a number of researchers and crash-safety experts that are dedicated to automobile safety and are well-versed in the importance of effective design. As a senior safety engineer at Volvo remarked: “Seat strength . . . is important. If the seat is collapsed, you have a totally uncontrolled situation. Therefore it is important to keep the integrity of the seat.” Although the number of seatback failures may be small in comparison to other types of vehicle accidents, “the injuries can be so devastating that something needs to be done,” says Kennerly Digges, a safety researcher who has studied seat-back strength and worked for NHTSA, the University of Virginia and George Washington University. As he explains, “Just because a small number are injured doesn’t mean you shouldn’t do something. For those people who are injured, it is very important.”
Overall, the automotive industry has not yet adequately tackled this problem nor have federal regulations attempted to fix the presently lax safety standards. Until the issue of seatback failures is meaningfully addressed by the industry, it is likely that litigation will continue to develop in this area.