By HAWLEY HOLMAN
Crashworthiness is the ability of a vehicle to protect its occupants in the event of a crash. Since 1965, Federal statues have required that automobile design include crashworthiness as one of its goals. Automobile crashes are foreseeable so the automobile should be designed to provide a reasonable degree of protection to occupants involved in those foreseeable, but undesirable, injurious events.
Automotive defect cases should be distinguished between “crashworthiness” and “crash causation.” A Firestone tire that detreads causing a Ford Explorer to rollover is a “crash causation” case, rather than a “crashworthiness” case. However, if the rollover also involves a roof crush or restraint failure, this would involve “crashworthiness” issues.
Automobile manufactures seem more willing to recognize that vehicles should include proper crash avoidance features such as steering, brakes, tires and lights but resist admitting the vehicle should be crashworthy.
The important point is that automobiles, and their accessories and components, such as tires, must be “reasonably safe,” taking into account the foreseeable dangers and alternative designs which are available. A product which is “unreasonably dangerous” contains a defect for which the manufacturer is liable, regardless of whether the danger involves a failure which causes a collision, or which fails to protect from collision forces, or some other injury mechanism.
Recognizing the Crashworthiness Case
The most important question is how to avoid overlooking a crashworthiness case. Overlooking a crashworthiness case is different from actually determining that a crashworthiness case exists. Determining that a viable crashworthiness case actually exists in a given set of facts can be very complicated and expensive, involving examination of the vehicle, the scene and the medical facts by automotive design engineers, reconstruction experts, biomechanics experts, and sometimes others. To avoid overlooking a crashworthiness case, the first step is become generally familiar with common types of known defects and types of defect litigation.
To be alert to the possibility of a crashworthiness case, consider two fundamental issues:
1) Are the injuries out of proportion to the severity of the collision? Look at the injuries to other people in the vehicles involved. If several people suffer only minor injuries, but one is catastrophically injured, there is an indication that the severe injury is out of proportion to the impact speeds, so ask yourself whether these injuries seem reasonable under the circumstances. In frontal and rear end collisions, properly belted occupants, in a non-defective vehicle, can survive quite high speed impacts without permanent, catastrophic injury. For frontal collisions, crash testing at a 35 mph “delta v” (a 35 mph impact into a fixed barrier) routinely produces test injury data showing survival without major injury. This is approximately the same as a moving vehicle hitting a parked vehicle at 70 mph. High speed side impacts are much more difficult to survive, due to the lack of crush space inherent in the shape of the vehicle. Rollovers are much more survivable than generally believed. In the absence of roof crush (impairing the integrity of the passenger compartment) or ejection, rollovers are frequently survived with comparatively little injury. In rollover injuries in which the occupant remains in the vehicle, careful examination of the vehicle will be required to determine the specific cause of the injury. Ejections from the vehicle should always be cause for suspicion. The combination of seatbelts, doors that remain closed, and proper window glass should retain occupants in the vehicle. If the occupant is ejected, an investigation should be made to determine the cause of the ejection.
2) Did any vehicle-related failure contribute to the collision? This asks the "accident causation" question. Tire failures are a classic example of failure of a vehicle component causing a collision. Brake or steering failures are other possibilities, to mention only a few. Recently, a lot of attention has been focusing on the sudden acceleration issues in many vehicles as the cause of an accident.
Post Collision Fire
Post-collision fuel fed fire, due to puncture of the fuel tank during collisions, was one of the earliest and most widely publicized types of crashworthiness cases. Although the frequency has been reduced these cases still occur today.
Fuel fed fire cases involve a catastrophic fire which occurs almost immediately upon impact, frequently engulfing the passenger compartment before the vehicle has come to a stop, and resulting in severe burn injury or death. Virtually all American made passenger cars manufactured before the early 1980s placed fuel tanks in a vulnerable position behind the rear axle, subjecting them to grave danger in rear-end collisions. During the 1980s, the advent of front wheel drive, and the corresponding placement of fuel tanks in more protected locations, greatly reduced the risk of fire for many vehicles. But, even recent models of full-size Ford Crown Victoria, Mercury Grand Marquis and Lincoln Town Cars, as well as Ford Mustangs, have been the subject of continuing fire, deaths and injuries.
There is a class of slowly developing post-collision fires which usually begin in the vicinity of the engine compartment and slowly engulf the passenger compartment. When an occupant has been trapped in the passenger compartment, these slowly developing fires can be equally as devastating as more common fuel fed fires due to puncture of the fuel tank.
There has also been considerable litigation over the fuel system integrity of heavy trucks. Many heavy trucks have side-saddle fuel tanks mounted in extremely vulnerable locations which can give rise to catastrophic results in the event of collision.
Any burn death or serious burn injury following a collision should be investigated as a potential crashworthiness case.
Tire failures are widely known due to the recent news involving recalls of Firestone ATX and Wilderness tires used on Ford Explorer SUVs. The problem and the defects are not limited to the tires which have been recalled, or to Ford and Firestone products.
The failures involve a detreading failure of a steel-belted radial tire, in which the tread and, frequently, the outer steel belt separate, either partially or entirely, from the remainder of the tire. The tire may or may not lose air. The loss of tread may result in loss of the driver's ability to control the directional stability of the vehicle, with a resulting collision, and especially in SUVs, in a rollover.
Tire detreading events are known to occur in virtually all types of modern steel belted radial tires, made by all manufacturers. Although Firestone has received the most recent publicity, well-known cases have been prosecuted successfully against Michelin, Cooper and other manufacturers. Any detread should be considered a potential crashworthiness case.
SUV and Van Rollovers
A high percentage of serious, injury-producing crashes involve SUVs, minivans or large 15-passenger vans, all of which frequently roll over during collisions. Instability leading to rollover is a well-known defect which affects virtually all compact SUVs, minivans and 15-passenger vans. There have been numerous cases against almost all brands and model years of compact SUVs. Ford Bronco II, Ford Explorer, Isuzu Rodeo, Toyota 4-Runner, Jeep CJ, Chrysler minivans, and Ford Aerostar are only the most well-known. Ford, Chrysler and GM 15-passenger vans are also the subject of repeated litigation.
Many of these vehicles are known to have other defects which contribute to injury severity, both in the presence and absence of rollover. Ejections during rollover are very common in these vehicles due to restraint or door defects. Restraint systems that do not lock in rollovers; inertial seatbelt buckle unlatching; seats that do not remain securely fastened to the floor, and which destroy the effectiveness of the restraint system, are among the known problems. Doors that do not remain closed, (e.g. Chrysler liftgate and Explorer side doors) are known problems. Any catastrophic injury or death in an SUV, minivan or 15-passenger van rollover should be viewed with suspicion, especially if ejection is involved. Immediate steps should be taken to determine seatbelt usage for the injured.
FMVSS 216, the Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standard which applies to roof strength, allows vehicle roof structure to be so weak as to be a meaningless standard. Modern vehicles frequently comply with FMVSS 216 test requirements based on the strength provided by side window glass which is closed when the tests are conducted. When the glass shatters during a collision, the roof no longer provides even the minimal strength of the meaningless Federal standard. It is common to find cars and trucks of virtually any make or model with the roof crushed to the top of the seats following a rollover.
One of the side effects of the widespread use of lap-shoulder belts is the tendency to cause the occupant to remain upright during a rollover. Studies show that, during rollover events, centrifugal force tends to position the head of the occupant against the roof rail. When the roof crushes, and the roof rail forcibly intrudes into the passenger compartment, compression loading of the neck axially to the spinal column can result in head injuries or neck fractures leading to death or quadriplegia.
Restraint System Defects
Automotive safety depends heavily on the proper functioning of the restraint system. The restraint system also includes the seats, head restraints, airbags, portions of the steering column, instrument panel and doors, and various devices associated with these items. Various well-known defects are associated with almost all aspects of restraints systems in a wide variety of cars and trucks. Examples include:
Inertial Unlatching Under certain circumstances, the inertial forces in collisions can cause seatbelt buckles to become unlatched during the collision process.
Retractor lock-up failure During normal driving, seatbelts spool in and out from spring loaded retractor reels which provide more length to accommodate movement while riding in the vehicle, and reel in the extra length when not needed. During a collision, locking mechanisms within the retractor are intended to sense the impending collision and to lock the belt so that it can restrain the occupant without reeling out. There are various kinds of locking devices, of varying sophistication and reliability. Unfortunately, it is all too common that the locking devices will fail to promptly and fully lock. This may result in a complete failure to provide restraint, or a failure to provide pelvic or torso restraint, or late or incomplete restraint. As a result, the occupant may receive far more severe injuries than appropriate for the severity of the collision. There are various alternative designs to assure full and proper lock up. Most desirable is the use of pretensioners, which are devices to not only lock seatbelts but to affirmatively pull them tight in the face of impending collision. Pretensioners are fired electronically by signals from the sensors which sense impending collisions and fire air bags. The sensors may be located and calibrated to sense impact from varying directions, and to sense impending rollover.
Submarining Failure to properly design the restraint system may result in the occupant submarining under the lap portion of the seatbelt. The lap belt portion of seatbelt should be designed to apply restraint across the heavy bony portions of the pelvis, below the abdomen. During collisions, however, the pelvis and buttocks of the occupant tend to move forward and downward; with poorly designed restraint systems, the pelvis will move forward under the belt (submarine) which will now apply force through the abdomen to the soft tissues of the abdomen and the spinal column behind. These structures are not strong enough to withstand such loading, and the belt itself may cause serious or fatal injury. Severe bruising and laceration of internal organs, may occur, sometimes including internal hemorrhaging which may be fatal. Major damage to the lumbar spinal column and spinal cord may result in paraplegia or other neurological damage affecting the lower limbs, and bladder or bowel control.
Submarining is the result of improper design of seatbelt anchor points, which affect belt angles, and improper seat design. Properly designed seat cushions and seat pans underlying the cushions assist in providing restraint to the pelvis and buttocks, to prevent submarining. Failure to provide this important restraint can allow the belt to maim or kill the occupant it should have protected.
Poor belt fit —— Women and Children Belts and seats are frequently designed to fit 50-95th percentile men, although they are required by law to fit 5th percentile female through 95th percentile men in the driver’s seat, and 6 year old children through 95th percentile men in rear seats. When seats and belts do not properly fit small women and children, the poor fit can contribute to submarining. Lap belt placement which may be adequate for a 50th percentile male may be too high for a small female, or a 10 year old child, thus contributing to submarining and abdominal or spinal injury.
Lap Only Belts Not until 1988 did Federal standards require lap-shoulder belts in the rear outboard seating positions of American cars and trucks. Prior to that model year, almost all cars and trucks sold in the United States provided lap-only belts in all rear seating positions.
Still today, most manufacturers provide lap-only belts in the rear center seating position. The absence of the torso restraint exposes the occupant to all the dangers of an unrestrained head and upper body. Additionally, the belts frequently allow submarining. The combination of no torso restraint and submarining commonly results in abdominal and spinal column injuries resulting in severe internal injuries, including bleeding which may be fatal, or spinal cord injury with result in paraplegia or paraparisis.
Energy Management Loops Several manufacturers incorporate so-called "energy management loops" into their seatbelts. These are actual loops of seatbelt which are stitched into the belt with stitching designed to rip out when collision force loading is applied to the belt, which will result in lengthening the belt by several inches. The additional length creates slack in the belt which results in some failure of restraint which may be injurious. Additionally in some situations, the slack can allow the occupant to slide free of the belt and to be ejected, or thrown forcefully around inside the vehicle.
Child Seats Many child seats simply do not do a good job of protecting children from injury. Many are complicated to install and to use correctly, and are not accompanied by adequate warnings and instructions. Devices required to be in vehicles to facilitate installation of child seats are not always available.
Young children are especially subject to devastating injuries in collisions due to the fragility of their young body structures. Any severe injury to a child which occurs when the child has been located in the rear seat and is using the restraints available should be suspect.
Airbags Airbag injuries are of two types:
Failure to deploy
Injury due to deployment
Seatback Failure For many years, virtually all manufacturers provided seatbacks which were so weak as to fail in moderate speed rear-end impacts. The fact of failure was demonstrated repeatedly in the manufacturers’’ rear-end crash tests.
When seatback failure occurs in a rear-end collision, the occupant is catapulted rearward in the vehicle; seatbelt restraint becomes ineffective, and the occupant is subjected to the danger of forcibly impacting the interior of the vehicle with the head, which may result in severe head injury or neck fracture which may cause death or quadriplegia. When other occupants are in the rear seats, the front occupant may forcefully contact the rear occupant, resulting in injuries to both.
Door Opening Doors should remain closed during collisions and, ideally, should be openable thereafter. Federal standards have recognized this principle for many years by imposing certain strength requirements for the door latches of side doors.
Type I door latches which open during collisions have been a source of litigation for many years. Many vehicles use rods to connect the inner door handles with the actual door latch; during collisions, collision forces on the rod can unlatch the door (even if locked) (e.g. Ford Explorer compression rod cases). Side doors of vans, and the liftgates of vans and SUVs frequently use latches of poor design which routinely open during collision (e.g. Chrysler minivan liftgate litigation). When the doors open, especially during rollovers or side impacts, the occupants are exposed to the danger of ejection.
Was the injured party belted?
Even if a statute may make use or non-use of a seatbelt inadmissible in collision cases the information may be admissible in crashworthiness cases. First, when the case alleges failure of the seatbelt system, the evidence that the plaintiff was belted is admissible.
Although arguably use or non-use may be inadmissible in non-crashworthiness cases (e.g. tire failure or brake failure), it is admissible in crashworthiness cases alleging restraint failure, and might be admissible in other crashworthiness cases. Locating such persons and making a firm determination of the eyewitness testimony of seatbelt usage can be very important. In ejection cases, police may assume that belts were not being used, and are generally not trained to make a careful examination of the physical evidence to look for belt usage.
It is important to locate and preserve both the best eyewitness evidence and the best physical evidence of belt usage.
Eyewitness evidence will generally come either from the injured person, fellow occupants of the vehicle, or first arrivals on the scene.
The condition of the belt as found at the scene, which may be transitory and should be documented by photographs immediately;
Witness marks in the vehicle, which may be difficult to locate except by an expert;
Witness marks of belt usage on the body of the occupant, in the form of distinctive strap-like bruises on the pelvis, abdomen, chest or shoulder.
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