Our firm recently settled a products liability case that shows clearly how little regard for safety some manufacturers have. The case, which was filed in the Circuit Court of Montgomery, County, Alabama, involved the tragic death of an innocent man who, while driving a large truck, was properly wearing his seat belt in a highway crash. Like all of us, Joe Freeman expected the belt system to work properly. After all, a seat belt is an essential part of a vehicle’s safety restraint system. As we all know keeping an occupant in a vehicle in a crash sequence that involves a rollover is good from a safety perspective. Ejection from the vehicle in most every case results in death or a severe disability injury.
On October 12, 2005, Joseph Freeman, Jr. was employed by Evergreen Forest Products as a truck driver. His job was to transport wood chips from a lumber mill in Chapman, Alabama, to a paper mill located in Prattville, Alabama. Around 6:30 a.m. on that morning, Mr. Freeman was driving a 2004 model large truck owned by his employer, Evergreen Forest Products. He was pulling a trailer loaded with wood chips north on a two-lane rural highway in Butler County, Alabama. A small Nissan pickup crossed the center line of the roadway and hit Mr. Freeman’s truck head-on. Neither vehicle was traveling above the speed limit of 55 miles per hour. That was undisputed. Mr. Freeman attempted to steer his vehicle to the right in an attempt to avoid the collision, but the vehicles collided at the edge of the northbound lane. The Nissan truck was virtually destroyed on impact. The driver, who was not wearing his seat belt, was ejected and killed instantly. Mr. Freeman was unhurt in the initial collision with the Nissan and his truck continued beyond the impact. Mr. Freeman attempted to steer his truck to a stop after the impact, but, as he steered his truck back into the northbound lane, the truck and trailer rolled onto its passenger side and slid to rest in the roadway. Mr. Freeman, who was wearing his seat belt, was ejected through the windshield of his truck and thrown onto the pavement. He lived approximately 30 minutes at the scene but died en-route to a local hospital.
Mr. Freeman was killed when he was ejected from the truck because his seat belt didn’t work. A wrongful death lawsuit was brought by Mr. Freeman’s family against Indiana Mills Manufacturing Inc. (IMMI) and the manufacturer of the truck under the provisions of the Alabama Extended Manufacturer Liability Doctrine. It was alleged that the restraint system manufactured and sold by IMMI for use by the truck manufacturer was unreasonably dangerous and defective. We proved during pretrial discovery that, not only was this buckle defective, but IMMI knew all about the defect but continued to sell the buckle to truck manufacturers.
When the truck manufacturer first introduced this line of heavy trucks, the trucks were equipped with a seatbelt system manufactured by Autoliv, a leading restraint manufacturer. During the early years of the line, 2000 and 2001, the truck manufacturer had no complaints concerning the operation of the Autoliv seatbelt buckles in its line of trucks. However, in 2002 the truck manufacturer switched from Autoliv to IMMI as the supplier of seatbelts for its trucks. The switch became effective in mid-2002. Almost immediately, the truck manufacturer began to receive complaints from drivers that the IMMI seatbelt buckles known as the “H2” in the trucks would not latch properly and would fail to stay latched while the truck was being operated. Hundreds of these complaints were passed on to IMMI as part of a warranty agreement. Additionally, the truck manufacturer communicated the buckle defect to IMMI through numerous emails and direct meetings with IMMI representatives.
In the Summer of 2003, about a year after the H2 was introduced into the trucks, two IMMI engineers met and discussed the failure-to-latch problem. They then undertook to redesign the H2 buckle to prevent the buckle failure. As part of their work, these IMMI engineers discovered a Failure Modes and Effects (FMEA) study created during the time when the H2 buckle was being developed. The FMEA identified a potential failure mode of the H2 buckle that would prevent the buckle from latching. A severity value of “10” was assigned by the FEMA to the failure. This was the highest value on IMMI’s scale. The buckle defect was attributed to “improper design.” Although the failure was identified and documented in the FMEA in 2000, which was 2 years before IMMI began selling the buckle to the truck manufacturers, the problem was not corrected by the company.
Two weeks after IMMI began trying to “fix” the defective H2 buckle, the IMMI engineers came up with a redesign of the plastic buckle button that completely eliminated the defect. Immediately thereafter, IMMI produced samples of the new design and tested them to ensure proper operation and found that the defect was corrected. By the end of 2003, the redesign and testing were complete. Although the defect was discovered, documented, researched, evaluated, and corrected by the end of 2003, the truck assigned to Mr. Freeman was built in January 2004, using an older defective buckle. That sort of conduct is absolutely unbelievable and can’t be justified. In fact, Mr. Freeman’s truck was purchased by Evergreen Forest Products in February 2004 as part of a fleet of identical trucks. Each truck in Evergreen’s fleet was built using the older defective buckles. During our case preparation, we inspected and disassembled the buckles with a representative of the defendants being present, to confirm that the buckles were of the older design. Subsequently, IMMI corporate Risk Manager, Bob Crandall, drove from Indiana to Alabama to remove all of the buckles in the Evergreen fleet and replace them with the redesigned H2 buckles. It was admitted by IMMI during pretrial discovery that the older H2 buckle was redesigned to prevent the failure-to-latch problem and that the corrective action was taken by the end of 2003.
It is undisputed that Mr. Freeman was a habitual seatbelt user. In fact, in over 50 depositions – many of which are fact witnesses – we were unable to find a single person who ever saw Mr. Freeman in any vehicle without his seatbelt on. Several of his fellow drivers testified to seeing Mr. Freeman in the subject truck, or in his personal vehicle, with his seatbelt on at least 300 separate occasions. So, it was undisputed by all witnesses that Mr. Freeman always wore his seatbelt. Clearly, Mr. Freeman was wearing his seatbelt in this crash, yet it failed in a manner known to IMMI long before Mr. Freeman’s truck was built. Although Alabama law presently doesn’t impose a duty to recall defective products, IMMI voluntarily undertook such a duty when it began a silent recall campaign by replacing defective belts under its warranty program. The problem was that nobody driving the trucks with the defective seat belt systems were told.
IMMI failed to properly design the H2 buckle and IMMI sold a defective buckle to the truck manufacturer for installation in Mr. Freeman’s truck. Under the silent recall campaign, IMMI replaced defective buckles only when drivers complained that their seat belts failed to properly latch. Even so, IMMI failed to replace the defective buckles in the fleet of trucks at Evergreen Forest Products until after Mr. Freeman was killed. IMMI, as the manufacturer of the defective H2 buckle in Mr. Freeman’s truck, was directly responsible for his death.
We settled the case just before a jury was to be selected with the amount of the settlement at the defendant’s request being confidential. However, Judge Charles Price lifted a protective order that had previously been in effect concerning the defective buckles as to IMMI. As a result, we are now free to tell the public about IMMI’s total disregard for safety and how this manufacturer knowingly sold a defective product and to this day has kept the information concerning the defect from the public. Mike Andrews, Cole Portis, and I handled the case for Mr. Freeman’s family. Mike Andrews, who was the lead lawyer on the case, did a tremendous job on discovery. We are now able to let the owners of trucks with the defective seat belt systems know about the hazard. Hopefully, this will save lives in the future. Mr. Freeman’s family insisted that the protective order is lifted so that others would find out about this hazard.