Seat belt failure case settled

posted on:
January 7, 2008

author:
Jere Beasley

Beasley Allen recently settled a wrongful death case against a major automobile manufacturer involving the failure of a seat belt to restrain the driver during a rollover crash.

Our client was traveling down the interstate when she was required to take evasive maneuvers to avoid hitting a state trooper patrol car that was parked in the interstate monitoring a construction zone.

The SUV that our client was driving rolled over on flat dry pavement and she was partially ejected from the waist up. The rollover event occurred at approximately 60 mph. Our client was properly belted in the vehicle at the time of the crash.

Unfortunately, the seat belt retractor failed to remain locked during the rollover event, allowing nearly ten inches of slack to be introduced into the belt and allowing our deceased client to be partially ejected, from which she received a fatal head injury. Although manufacturers know that SUVs rollover nearly two-thirds more than regular passenger cars, most manufacturers do not attempt to design a belt that will retain an occupant during a foreseeable rollover event. The belt system is designed primarily for frontal collisions.

The Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards related to seat belt design and performance that manufacturers must meet do not provide any mandatory requirement for seat belt performance in a dynamic rollover event. While the FMVSS provides an optional dynamic rollover test for compliance, we are unaware of any manufacturer that has chosen to certify its seat belts with this test.

This dynamic rollover performance test requires that no part of a belted occupant can escape the plane of the vehicle during a rollover. In other words, the seat belt must keep an occupant’s entire body inside the vehicle during a rollover. However, manufacturers do not attempt to meet this standard, and as a result seat belts do not perform safely when a rollover occurs.

Our expert testing showed that the retractor of the crash vehicle would unlock during a typical rollover sequence, allowing significant spool-out. Since manufacturers do not design or test belts to perform in rollover accidents, most are unaware of exactly how the seat belts will perform. Basic engineering standards require that manufacturers design a seat belt that would protect occupants against recognized hazards such as ejection during a rollover event. Nonetheless, since the federal government does not require such testing, manufacturers do not even attempt to design seat belts that will adequately retain an occupant in a rollover crash.

Our experts have shown that seat belts can be designed to properly and adequately retain occupants in a rollover event by using well-known technology such as cinching latch plates, rollover activated seat belt pretensioners, side air curtains, and/or seats designed with the seat belt attached to them.

In our case our experts were able to show that had these alternative designs been employed, as they are in some vehicles, the driver would have survived the crash with only minor injuries. This is just another example of how inadequate the FMVSS standards are when it comes to protecting consumers against well-known, foreseeable hazards. Under the terms of the settlement, the names of the manufacturers and the car model as well as the amount are confidential. Ben Baker and Greg Allen handled this case and did a great job for our client.

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