Greg Allen, the senior Products Liability lawyer in our firm, recently settled a case for a confidential amount with General Motors involving the death of an elderly gentleman who was severely burned when a fire started in the engine compartment of his Chevrolet Blazer and quickly spread into the passenger compartment.
Mr. Lamar Hough was on his way home when, unbeknownst to him, his Blazer developed an oil leak around an improperly installed oil filter. The vaporized oil came out under pressure and sprayed onto the hot exhaust manifold. The vehicle started running rough due to the drop in oil pressure. Mr. Hough was very close to his driveway going up a hill when the Blazer shut off and the engine caught fire. The Blazer rolled back into the ditch. Mr. Hough was properly wearing his seatbelt.
At rest, the Blazer was tilted at an angle in the ditch. As a result, Mr. Hough had difficulty trying to unlatch his seatbelt. A witness, who tried to help release the seatbelt, testified in deposition about the buildup of heat and smoke inside the Blazer. The witness turned and ran to retrieve a fire extinguisher. The engine fire grew larger and, due to the lack of a firewall in the Blazer, the fire came into the passenger compartment below the dashboard.
The interior of the passenger compartment caught fire in less than two minutes. Mr. Hough, whose clothes were on fire, eventually was able to get the seatbelt to release and he climbed out of the passenger side of the vehicle, but not before he was severely burned. He was transferred to the burn unit at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, where he suffered for four months before dying from the complications from his burn injuries.
Many consumers think that their vehicles have firewalls. While some European designs do, most U.S. and Asian vehicles do not. The manufacturers cut numerous holes through what was once called the “firewall.” It should be noted that wiring harnesses, cables and HVAC vents penetrate the dash panel. Usually the holes are filled with some type of flammable material, such as rubber or plastic grommets. Car manufacturers generally make no effort to fireproof the barrier or bulkhead between the engine compartment and the passenger compartment.
It should be noted that the auto manufacturers refuse to call the barrier between the engine compartment and the passenger compartment a “firewall.” Instead, they call the barrier a “dash panel” or “bulkhead.” The reason is because car companies do no testing to determine how long this dash panel can withstand an engine fire before it goes into the passenger compartment.
There is no Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standard that requires engine fires to be contained for any period of time. It is well known that engine fires are the most prevalent automotive fires, far more prevalent than fuel-fed fires, such as gasoline tank or fuel line rupture. There are 500 deaths and 3,000 injuries a year from engine fires getting into the passenger compartment; however, car manufacturers generally ignore this hazard.
Many consumers are not aware of the flammability danger of the numerous fluids and materials in the engine compartment that will allow the engine to burn. Oil, gasoline, transmission fluid, windshield wiper fluid, antifreeze, plastics and rubber are all capable of supplying a fuel load to a fire.
Studies show that at least 15 to 20 minutes escape time is needed to allow time for fire departments to arrive on the scene. This is especially true for rural areas. After crashes, the occupants may be disabled or entrapped and cannot escape the passenger compartment. There are numerous horror stories about people being burned alive by engine fires coming into the passenger compartment. This is a needless tragedy.
Many European-designed cars, since at least the mid-1990s, have double firewalls, which isolate the engine compartment from the passenger compartment. These designs also isolate the brake reservoir to help reduce the potential for fires post-crash.
While Greg was in the process of writing this article, there was a news article of a gentleman in Birmingham who was entrapped in his car and burned to death from an engine fire before the fire department arrived. These fires are very prevalent and need to be addressed. However, without government intervention, only lawsuits can encourage manufacturers to do their job and design safer products.
The GM case was handled by Greg Allen, Stephanie Monplaisir and LaBarron Boone from Beasley Allen, along with Shane Seaborn and Myron Penn of the Penn & Seaborn Law Firm with offices in Clayton, Union Springs and Montgomery. The amount of the settlement is confidential. Greg did a tremendous job of discovery in this case and some of the depositions and Defense experts were devastating for the automaker. Greg felt it very important that the facts of the case and information relating to the overall safety problems involved not be confidential.
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This story also appeared in the October edition of The Jere Beasley Report. For more like this, or to subscribe, visit The Report online.