Tractor-trailer: Seat belt buckle: Buckle fails to latch: Driver ejected: Fail-to-latch defect: Falselatch condition: Wrongful death: Settlement.

Johnson v. Ind. Mills & Mfg., Inc., Ala., Montgomery Co. Cir., No. 2005-2687, Jan. 29, 2007

Freeman, 48, was driving a tractor-trailer on the highway when he was involved in an offset frontal collision. On impact, the truck left the road and rolled over. Freeman, who was wearing his seat belt, was ejected when the H2 buckle failed. He suffered fatal injuries. He is survived by an adult son and daughter.

Freeman’s daughter, on behalf of her father’s estate, sued the manufacturer of the buckle, alleging it was defective in that it intermittently failed to latch and was prone to a false-latch condition in which it appeared to be latched when it was not. Plaintiff claimed that had the buckle not failed, her father would have walked away from the collision uninjured.

Plaintiff was prepared to present evidence that defendant’s own analysis had identified the fail-to-latch defect years before the buckle here was manufactured and that defendant had redesigned the buckle the year before the incident to prevent the defect. Plaintiff was prepared to present animations depicting the defect, X-rays of the buckle in its fail-to-latch condition, warranty claims and customer complaints of similar failures, and testimony by drivers who had experience the defect.

Plaintiff made no claim for lost wages.

Defendant argued that Freeman was negligent in failing to notice that the buckle was not properly latched and ensure that it was operating properly.

The parties settled for a confidential amount. The workers’ compensation carrier asserted a small lien. Plaintiff’s experts in this case were Kenneth A. Brown, biomechanics, Hatboro, Pa.; Bryant Buchner, accident reconstruction, Tallahassee, Fla.; and Joseph L. Burton, biomechanics, kinematics, and injury causation, Alpharetta, Ga.

Defendant’s experts were Thomas McNish, biomechanics, occupant kinematics, and injury causation, San Antonio, Tex.; Elroy Keltner, driver procedures, Gainesville, Fla.; Geoff Germane, accident reconstruction, Provo, Utah; and Will Van Arsdell, seat belts, Cambridge, Mass.

Plaintiff’s Counsel: D. Michael Andrews, Jon Cole Portis and Jere Beasley, all of Montgomery Al.

Comment: After the settlement was entered, the court ruled that all documents and deposition testimony from the lawsuit against defendant were released from a previous protective order. 

After the lawsuit was filed, defendant replaced the defective buckles in all of the trucks owned by plaintiff’s employer. According to plaintiffs counsel, however, defendant is aware that there are 15,000 trucks on the road with the same defective buckles but has failed to recall them or notify the owners of the other subject trucks. Counsel reports that there is a "silent recall" in effect, meaning that the owner of a truck with a defective belt can bring the truck in and have a safe belt installed at no cost.



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