The manufacturer of a seat belt buckle settled recently for an undisclosed amount in an Alabama lawsuit filed following the death of a truck driver during a collision.

Joseph Freeman, Jr., an employee of Evergreen Forest Products (Evergreen), was transporting wood chips from an Alabama lumber mill on October 12, 2005, when a Nissan pickup crossed the center line and struck his large truck head on. The Nissan driver, who was not wearing a seatbelt, was ejected in the collision and died instantly. Shortly after the initial impact, Mr. Freeman’s truck rolled over onto its passenger side, sliding on the roadway. Mr. Freeman was ejected through the windshield of the truck, and died of his injuries within moments.

At issue in the lawsuit was the question of whether Mr. Freeman was wearing his seatbelt at the time of the collision. Evidence filed in the case, however, established that he was a habitual seat belt wearer, and that a judge could be virtually certain that he had buckled up before driving off that day. Therefore, the problem had to be with the seat belt buckle.

The seat belt buckle in this question was the “H2” made by Indiana Mills Manufacturing Inc. (Indiana Mills), and was already installed in the 2004 truck when it was purchased by Evergreen that same year.

During the investigation following the accident, it was disclosed that Indiana Mills had been receiving complains from truck owners and drivers since 2002 advising that the H2 buckles were failing to latch properly, and failing to stay latched while in use. It was also disclosed that Indiana mills knew or should have known as early as 2000 that the buckle was prone to failure, and in fact its engineers had redesigned the buckle to eliminate the problem by the end of 2003.

In spite of this, there was no recall of the buckles already sold and in use. The evidence was that Indiana Mills only replaced the older defective buckles when drivers and owned individually complained about them.

The case was settled before trial on condition that the amount of the settlement remains confidential.

Senior Partner Jere Beasley of Beasley Allen Crow, Methvin, Portis & Miles, P.C., concludes in his online Jere Beasley Report that the case “shows clearly how little regard for safety some manufactures have”. Following the settlement, he adds: “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.”

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