We were contacted recently by a lawyer representing a family who lost a loved one in a motor vehicle wreck when the cargo she was transporting in her GM cargo van shifted forward in a head-on collision. This lady would have walked away from the wreck but for being crushed by the cargo. This tragic wreck reminds me of a case our firm handled several years ago where our client lost his wife in a similar manner in a GM cargo van.

According to accident statistics, there are nearly 250 cargo-related injuries and fatalities every year. In this country, the hazard posed by unrestrained cargo and eliminating that hazard through known safety devices has, for the better part, been ignored by the automobile manufacturers. This is particularly true with the one vehicle where occupants need protection from cargo the most – the cargo van.

For over 40 years, all of the major domestic automobile manufacturers have manufactured and sold cargo or delivery vans. As acknowledged by the industry, cargo vans are designed, manufactured, and sold with one primary purpose: to transport cargo. In fact, most utility vans are designed to carry between 1,500 and 3,000 pounds of cargo in the cargo area which is directly behind the driver and front passenger seat. Remarkably, these vans are designed and manufactured without any means to retain cargo so as to protect occupants from moving or shifting cargo in a foreseeable collision or sudden stop. The only protection provided for the driver of a cargo van transporting an item such as a refrigerator in a frontal collision is the seat itself. However, even manufacturers will admit that the seats in cargo vans are inadequate to act as a guard or to prevent serious and fatal injuries to occupants in very minor frontal collisions caused by the forces from a 200-pound object, such as a refrigerator, much less the entire payload. Anticipated cargo loads shifting or moving forward in collisions can crush occupants between their seat and steering wheel, even in collisions from which drivers should walk away. In cargo vans, it’s the “second collision” that can be more dangerous than the first.

Automakers have been aware since the 1960s that companies or manufacturers which the industry calls “upfitters” were manufacturing partitions and cargo restraints. In fact, the upfitters started doing this in the early 1960’s to afford protection for occupants in foreseeable collisions. Even more amazing is that while the automakers have business relationships with certain upfitters who manufacture partitions to be placed in cargo vans, the industry claims to this day that it has never tested a partition or cargo restraint. This is true even though the automakers admit that cargo barracks are necessary safety features when consumers are transporting cargo, such as tools or appliances. Furthermore, the car makers have done nothing to assure that its “certified” upfitters who manufacture cargo restraints for use in its vans are manufacturing crashworthy cargo restraints.

In our case, we learned that while GM has never provided a cargo barrier or cargo partition for the very vehicle that would need one, a cargo van, it has provided cargo barriers for passenger cars since the late 1960’s. In the late 1960’s, GM began to provide and test a steel divider between the trunk and rear seat of most of its passenger vehicles. GM tested the steel divider to make sure it was an adequate cargo barrier to prevent foreseeable items, which people would put in their trunk, from penetrating the passenger area in frontal collisions. In fact, GM called the cargo barrier a “safety feature.” GM also provided securing devices in some of these trunks, to which people could secure cargo. Between 1968 and 1974, GM tested almost every passenger vehicle it sold to assure that the cargo barrier and steel partition between the trunk and rear seat would retain items, such as spare tires, in 30 mph collisions.

Even more unbelievable than the industry’s failure to provide cargo restraints for its cargo vans are its reasons why it chose not to do so. In our case, GM took the position that the van, and, for that matter, all cargo vans it manufactures, are not provided cargo restraint devices because there are simply not enough cargo injuries and fatalities to justify providing cargo partitions as standard safety devices.

We also learned another factor that makes GM’s actions in this country hard to swallow. While GM has ignored the hazards posed by unrestrained cargo in its cargo vans in the United States, GM’s actions in Europe have been different for nearly two decades. In the mid-1980’s, GM’s European engineers acknowledged that the hazard posed by unrestrained cargo could no longer be ignored, and safety features, such as partitions in delivery vans, were necessary to help protect occupants in foreseeable collisions. As a result, Opel, GM’s European subsidiary, began designing, manufacturing, and testing partitions for delivery vans. By 1990, when our client’s van was manufactured, GM was selling its delivery vans in Europe with partitions as “standard safety devices.” Unfortunately for our client, during that very same year, her van was manufactured with no partition or device to restrain cargo. Had our client’s van been manufactured by GM with a partition like the one it provided in Europe, she would have walked away from her accident and would be with her husband today.

During the same time GM was developing and testing cargo partitions and restraints in Europe, it was considering providing some form of cargo restraint in its cargo vans similar to our clients’ vehicle. One of GM’s safety engineers testified in our case that he recommended in the mid-1980’s that GM provides, at a minimum, cargo tie-downs in vans because no cargo barrier was provided to protect occupants from cargo that might shift and injure occupants in frontal collisions. This GM engineer testified further that he made these recommendations to GM’s policymakers because GM knew that folks were going to use their vans to haul heavy cargo, and consumers needed some means to retain cargo as recommended by GM in its own owner’s manual. Unfortunately, GM ignored its own safety engineer’s recommendations. A few years later, our clients’ van, like every other G-van manufactured by GM, was sold without any means to restrain cargo.

GM now admits that its cargo vans, as designed and manufactured, are not safe to haul cargo. However, the company takes the position that it is up to folks like our client to make sure the vans are safe to haul cargo. What is even more amazing about GM placing the burden on consumers to make its vans safe is GM’s failure to provide any information as to how a consumer should make its vans safe. The owner’s manuals being provided with GM cargo vans provide no information as to how a consumer can make its vans safe to transport cargo. In addition, GM provides no literature or warnings as to where consumers can acquire cargo-retentive devices. Even if a consumer is fortunate enough to know where to get a partition or other cargo restraints installed for his or her GM cargo van, GM cannot certify that necessary cargo restraints are, in fact, crashworthy, because GM has chosen for 40 years to ignore needed testing to assure that necessary cargo restraint for use in its vans are safe.

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