A Texas jury has awarded $125.4 million in compensatory damages to the family of a boy seriously and permanently injured in a rear-end collision. The boy was riding in the back seat behind his father, Jesse Rivera, Sr., who was driving a 2005 Audi A4 Quattro in 2012 when the impact from the collision caused the driver’s seat-back to fail. As a result of the seat-back failure, the father pitched backward, and his head struck his son’s head. As a result the boy, Jesse Rivera, Jr., who was 7 at the time, sustained a depressed skull fracture, partial paralysis and blindness. He now requires full-time medical care.

The case highlights the woefully outdated standards for testing vehicle seat-back strength. The current safety standards were established in 1968. Although there was a call for standards to be updated in 2004, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) declined to do so, saying there was not enough data to support an update at that time.

NHTSA reports rear-end collisions account for only about 3 percent of traffic fatalities. From that figure, the number of fatalities that result from a seat-back failure is even smaller, according to the agency. At the time, NHTSA could not demonstrate that the cost of evaluating seat-back strength requirements would provide significant “real-world benefits” to justify the expense, Gordon Trowbridge, a NHTSA spokesman, told the San Antonio Express-News in an email.

The jury assigned to Audi AG, the car’s German manufacturer, and Volkswagen Group of America Inc., its U.S. distributor, 55 percent of the responsibility for the child’s injuries. The jurors found the driver of the car that rear-ended the Rivera vehicle, Gloria Cordover, 25 percent responsible for the injuries, and the boy’s father 20 percent responsible. Because Audi and Volkwagen were found more than 50 percent at fault, under Texas law (which is “join and several,”) the companies will be responsible for the entire amount of damages.

Although the jury did not award punitive damages, the lawyers involved in the case representing the Rivera family hope the verdict sends a message to federal regulators that stronger safety measures are needed to ensure seat-backs are strong enough to withstand a collision. Joseph Dunn, one of the San Antonio lawyers who represented the family, told the San Antonio Express-News:

NHSTA (the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration), which is supposed to be monitoring our automotive safety and promulgating standards for auto manufacturers to follow, is asleep at the wheel.

The case is Texas District Court, Bexar County (San Antonio). The plaintiffs were represented by Jeff Wigington, Joseph Dunn, Fidel Rodriguez and Manual Maltos. These lawyers did a tremendous job in the case.

Sources: San Antonio Express-News, Bloomberg

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