Before selecting a jury for a trial that was scheduled to last for weeks in Montgomery County Circuit Court, the family of Joe Freeman settled their product liability case with Indiana Mills & Manufacturing, Inc. in Westfield, Indiana, for an undisclosed amount. Mr. Freeman, a truck driver, was killed when he was ejected from the large truck (tractor-trailer) he was driving on an Alabama highway back in 2005. IMMI was the manufacturer of a seat belt buckle which was part of the safety restraint in the truck Mr. Freeman was driving. IMMI had known that their buckles were defective and dangerous long before the truck driven by Mr. Freeman was even manufactured. Mr. Freeman, who worked for Evergreen Forest Products, was thrown through the windshield of his truck and was killed when he struck the pavement. The initial collision was one that wouldn’t have resulted in a fatality had the seat belt buckle not failed.
IMMI had known that the design of the buckle was bad from the very beginning and that the defect would create a highly hazardous and dangerous condition in the event a frontal collision occurred involving a truck equipped with the seat belt system. We were shocked to learn that IMMI had known this for at least three years. Neither vehicle was going more than 50 miles per hour at impact. Mr. Freeman’s truck went off to the right shoulder of the roadway and he lost control. The tractor and trailer rolled over on the side. Had the seat belt worked, Mr. Freeman would have walked away from the collision with no injuries. Instead, because of the defective buckle, resulting in the seat belt not restraining him, he was killed.
IMMI knows that there are now 15,000 trucks on the road that have the very same defective IMMI buckles. There has been no recall of the buckles. In fact, there has been no attempt to even notify the owners of these trucks which are still being used. Once this lawsuit was filed, however, IMMI did inspect and replace all of the defective seat belts for the trucks owned by Mr. Freeman’s employer. However, no other owners have been notified. There is in effect what is known as a silent recall for the defective seat belts, which means that the owner of a truck with a bad belt can bring their truck in and get a safe seat belt installed at no cost.
Jere Beasley, one of the lawyers representing the Ford family, stated, “Joe Freeman, who was a good man and an experienced truck driver, died a tragic death because IMMI, a company which touts itself as being overly concerned with safety, disregarded the welfare of men and women who would be driving trucks equipped with seat belts with a defective and totally ineffective buckle which IMMI knew would fail in the event of a frontal collision. This company’s utter disdain for human life and vehicle safety resulted in the loss of one known life and has put thousands of other truck drivers at great risk.
Judge Charles Price ruled after the settlement was reached that all documents and deposition testimony from the case against IMMI – which were greatly damaging to IMMI – were released from a previously entered protective order and thus made public. This means we can let the owners and drivers of trucks equipped with the defective seat belts know about the defect and we will do just that. I commend the family involved in the tragic case for having the courage to take a powerful company on in the courts. More importantly, their refusal to agree to the protective order staying in place will result in the public being made aware of a most serious highway safety problem. Hopefully, that will save lives.
The amount of the settlement is confidential and thus can’t be revealed. Our prayer is that IMMI will do the right thing and issue an immediate recall of the defective seat belt buckles. In any event, we will formally request that IMMI issue a formal recall immediately if they don’t.” Mr. Freeman’s family was represented by Mike Andrews, Cole Portis, and Jere Beasley of the Montgomery, Al. firm of Beasley, Allen, Crow, Methvin, Portis & Miles.