On a summer day in 2019, our client Migdalia Roach strapped her 5-year-old daughter into the second-row left seat of their vehicle, recalling hearing the seatbelt “click.” The girl’s 10-year-old brother was seated next to her in the second-row right seat. As they traveled on a road in St. Croix, U.S. Virgin Islands, an oncoming vehicle veered into their lane, hitting them head-on.
Both children were known to remove their seatbelts or at least move the shoulder strap behind them. At the time of the crash, neither child was wearing a seatbelt, and during impact, both were ejected from the vehicle made by Fiat Chrysler Automobile US LLC (FCA). The girl was pinned under the car and died the next day due to blunt head trauma. Her brother suffered minor injuries.
Our clients argued that FCA’s actions directly contributed to their child’s death because the company refused to allow side curtain airbags to deploy in crashes like the one involving their family. Specifically, they allege that the standards FCA used to initiate the deployment of certain safety features, including airbags, went against the industry standard, failing to protect passengers during many real-world rollover events, including multi-roll events like the one our clients’ experienced.
The FCA vehicle involved in the accident uses a Slower Developing Rollover Events (SDRE) deployment strategy, relying on algorithm calibration. The vehicle’s Occupant Restraint Control Module (ORC) activates various safety devices, or sensors, based on external stimuli. The sensors send information to an electronic control unit or the brain of the restraint system. This unit activates safety restraint components such as airbags and seatbelt pretensioners (devices that tighten seatbelts) if external stimuli indicate an impending crash.
The decision to not deploy airbags in the SDRE events is a departure from standards used by all other vehicle makers. Many FCA vehicles across multiple lines have been subject to recall related to its SDRE deployment strategy and the lack of protection provided due to the programming criteria.
Our clients also alleged that the rear passenger windows lacked laminated safety glass and that the rear seats did not include seatbelt reminder systems to notify the driver if the rear occupants became unbelted. Although our client ensured the children were belted correctly before putting the vehicle in motion, it is believed that they unbuckled their safety belts after the vehicle began to move. Without any reminder system to notify the driver, it wasn’t easy to know if the children had removed their safety belts.
Chris Glover, the firm’s Atlanta office managing attorney, represented Ms. Roach and the family. He said, “I was humbled by the opportunity to represent this family. This case should remind automakers that they carry a significant responsibility to make prudent decisions that will impact an occupant’s safety. It truly is a matter of life and death.”
Chris settled with the defendants in the case on behalf of the family.