Our firm recently settled a wrongful death case involving a beautiful 18-year old young lady, Keely Griffin. She was a passenger in a Mitsubishi Montero Sport which was being driven by her best friend and they were returning home from spring break. Keely was properly wearing her seatbelt and had reclined the seat to rest on the trip home.
The two friends were on Interstate 65 in Butler County and were traveling through a construction zone when the left side tires left the narrow roadway onto a soft shoulder. The driver attempted to steer the vehicle back on the road, however, the drop-off was larger than allowed by road regulations. When the tires cleared the road edge, the vehicle traveled quickly toward the right side of the road. The driver then attempted to steer to the left and the vehicle then rolled over on the road. An eye witness following directly behind the Montero Sport observed the passenger side rear door come open during the rollover and observed Keely being ejected through that door immediately upon its opening.
We settled with the road construction company, and then proceeded toward trial against Mitsubishi. Our primary claims against Mitsubishi involved the failure of the door latch and Mitsubishi's failure to provide a warning about reclining the seat while the vehicle is in motion.
Dr. Kenneth Laughery, who was our warnings/human factors expert, has done extensive work on the issue of reclined seats. His studies established that people do not appreciate the hazard of riding with the seat reclined when they are properly belted. Mitsubishi clearly was aware of this hazard and was aware that people do not appreciate the hazard. In fact, the company included a warning on the subject in the Owner's Manual. However, Mitsubishi's expert acknowledged he would not expect a passenger in the vehicle to ever consult the Owner's Manual. Also, Dr. Laughery, who is at Rice University, established that people generally use the Owner's Manual as a quick reference guide and do not read it cover to cover.
We wrote on the reclining seat hazard in a recent issue. The reason it is hazardous to recline the seat while the vehicle is in motion is because it severely degrades the performance of the seatbelt. In a frontal collision, the lap belt portion of the restraint is not in contact with the boney structures of the hip nor is the shoulder belt in contact with any part of the occupant. As a result, the occupant often slides under the lap belt and either crashes into the dash or gets clothes-lined by the restraint system. In rear-end collisions; the seatback does not prevent the occupant from moving rearward and sliding underneath the belt. Similarly, in a rollover, as happened here, the occupant slides rearward and upward under the belt. It should be noted that Mitsubishi is not alone in its failure to address this hazardous situation. Unfortunately, serious injuries and deaths continue to occur and the automakers refuse to address this issue.
Dr. Laughery and our restraints expert, David Biss, have devoted an extensive amount of time and energy towards developing alternatives to remedy this situation. These include a back-lit warning for the passenger which would illuminate and provide an audible notification to the passenger if the seat is reclined while the vehicle is in motion. Other alternatives are an interlock which would prevent the seat from being reclined while the vehicle is in motion, and seat integrated restraints which would be effective in rollovers and rear end collisions. A combination of the back-lit warning with the seat integrated restraints is the best alternative.
In addition to the hazard of the reclined seat degrading the performance of the seatbelt, this vehicle contained an additional feature which further degraded the performance of the belt. In an effort to pass Federal Safety Standards related to occupant injuries in a frontal collision, many manufacturers began installing a feature known as an Energy Absorbing (EA) loop in the restraint. This usually remains unseen by owners because it is contained in the plastic stalk of the seatbelt where it mounts to the floor of the vehicle. An EA loop is basically some additional belt webbing stitched into the restraint. When the belt is loaded, the stitches rip loose and allow additional "ride down" in frontal collisions.
However, it quickly became known that this additional belt webbing counter-acted the purpose of the retractor which is to lock the belt within one inch of belt spool out. Most manufacturers have ceased installing this feature in restraint systems. In fact, Mitsubishi had already removed this feature in the driver's restraint system in this vehicle. The company's biomechanical expert testified this feature allowed an additional two inches of slack into Keely's lap belt which contributed to her slipping out of the belt.
Our claim involving the door latch centered around what is known as a compression rod linkage, which consists of a straight metal rod that attaches the outside door handle to the interior door latch. Oftentimes in a rollover, and what happened in this case, is the outer door skin will flex or separate from the interior door components. When this happens, it allows the outer door skin to move in relation to the door latch.
Our door latch expert, Andy Gilberg, has done numerous tests and demonstrations showing that movement of the door skin of only a quarter inch in a downward direction is sufficient to unlatch the door. One of the ways to guard against this outside handle activation is by locking the door. Because people forget to lock doors, the best way to accomplish this is by an auto-locking feature. An auto locking feature automatically locks all doors when the vehicle is shifted into drive or when the vehicle reaches a nominal speed such as 10 mph. While this feature has been around since the 1960's, many auto makers are just starting to include this feature on newer models.
Probably the best way to eliminate this hazard is through the use of a cable latch activation as opposed to the compression rod. A cable latch activation could withstand several inches of outer skin movement and still not unlatch the door.
Ian Jones was our design expert in the case. While Mitsubishi's experts tried to portray this as a very severe accident, they had to agree with Dr. Joe Burton, our occupant kinematics expert, that had Keely's seatback been in an upright position, she would not have sustained serious injuries in this crash. This was also evidenced by the fact that Keely's best friend, the driver, walked away uninjured. It should be noted that the driver error wasn't the cause of Keely's death.
Keely's death should never have happened and it wouldn't have had Mitsubishi utilized the proper design features in its vehicle. Graham Esdale and Cole Portis represented Keely's parents in this case and did an exceptional job. The case was settled before trial for an amount that is confidential.