Product Liability: Helping Clients with Crashworthiness Cases

Vehicle design is of major interest to both those buying a new automobile and those investigating crashworthiness issues. The common elements in crashworthiness cases are the assumptions that collisions are inevitable, and vehicles should be designed to minimize resulting injuries.

I. Introduction

Crashworthiness claims are products liability claims that begin as car accidents. In addition to being interesting and professionally challenging, crashworthiness claims can change the lives of catastrophically injured people. Any lawyer who represents clients involved in vehicle collisions should understand how to look for crashworthiness issues and how to preserve the client’s opportunity to pursue them.

II. Factual Premise of Crashworthiness Cases

Crashworthiness cases are premised on the idea that vehicle occupants should be protected from the consequences of foreseeable collisions. Fifty years ago, when cars had expansive metal dashboards, protruding radio knobs and window cranks, and no seatbelts, such an idea would have been hard to understand.

Technological advances and revolutionary thinking about vehicle design have changed all that. Today, safety is one of the primary concerns of families shopping for automobiles. Manufacturers and the general public agree that a vehicle not only can protect its occupants, it should protect them.

III. Types of Crashworthiness Cases

There are two basic categories of crashworthiness cases. The most common is that involving the structural integrity of the passenger compartment. The other involves fuel system integrity. As noted above, the common elements in these cases are the assumptions that collisions are inevitable, and vehicles should be designed to minimize injuries that result from them.

In a fuel system case, the idea is to avoid injury from a “fuel-fed fire.” Among the most highly publicized of these cases are the General Motors pickup truck cases involving “side saddle” fuel tanks. The side saddle design was used in building popular and widely-sold trucks built on a frame shaped like a giant X. The fuel tanks in those trucks are located on the sides of the truck, outside of the structural members of the truck’s frame. In a side collision, the unprotected fuel tanks are subject to direct impact, and are prone to rupture. If rupture occurs, gasoline is sprayed all over the scene of the collision. Many unlucky people who have survived the physical forces of the crash have been burned when the fuel ignites.

Plaintiffs have argued and juries have regularly agreed that it took much too long for GM to recognize and eliminate the terrible risk of burn injuries inherent in leaving side saddle fuel tanks unprotected by the truck’s frame. In the most recent trials of these cases, juries have awarded millions and millions of dollars in punitive damages for GM’s failure to recall the trucks or warn the public of their danger. These claims still arise today because some of the old trucks are still on the road, but they are settled before. trial.

Well-designed modern fuel systems place fuel tanks where they are unlikely to suffer direct impact, include electronic controls to shut off the fuel pump if a crash occurs, and prevent fuel spillage from broken fuel lines through the use of anti-siphoning valves. Unfortunately, despite what we know about the risk of fuel-fed fires, vehicle designers are not consistently careful.

There has been a spate of claims in the past few years involving Ford Crown Victoria sedans sold for use as police cruisers. If these cruisers are rearended (as they sometimes are during traffic stops), the fuel tanks can rupture. Officers caught inside have been badly burned and killed in fuel-fed fires. While the Crown Victoria police cruiser is the most recent vehicle model to come under widespread criticism for fuel system integrity problems, it is probably not the last.

The more common crashworthiness claims involve structural or mechanical failures that give rise to orthopedic, spinal or brain injuries. Here is a list of some types of claims which have been intensely studied and often litigated:

  • seat back collapse in a rear collision allowing the front seat passenger to either escape from the seat or fall backwards onto someone (often a child) in the rear seat;
  • seatbelt or airbag malfunction allowing a passenger to travel forward into the dashboard or windshield;
  • uncontrolled airbag deployment resulting in a passenger being struck and injured by the airbag;
  • roof crush or other intrusion of body panels into the passenger space;
  • door latch failure allowing doors to fly open during a crash;
  • window glass blow out resulting in a crush injury to a limb which escapes from the passenger compartment of the car.

Incidents involving the problems described above occur every day, causing serious injuries to people riding in new and used passenger cars, in SUVs, and in light trucks. It should not be assumed, however, that all crashworthiness claims fall into these known types, or that crashworthiness cases apply only to passenger vehicles produced in high volume.

IV. Example: The Fire Truck Case

Not long ago, a firefighter in a small town in Kennebec County was invited by his Chief to go for a casual ride in the Town’s new fire truck. He sat in the front right seat, with the Chief at the wheel. There were other firefighters buckled into the rear seats. The Chief, an inexperienced driver, lost control of the huge truck and hit a tree at the right front corner of the truck. Although it cost many thousands of dollars to repair the truck, no one was hurt in any way except the firefighter in the right front passenger seat. Even he would have been unhurt if his right foot had not been at the wrong place at the wrong time.

The fire truck had been designed with a set of stairs on each side, somewhat like a ladder, to allow easy access to the front seats in the cab. The truck’s doors closed in such a way as to leave a five inch gap between the floor board (at the top of the highest step) and the adjacent door. In addition to being five inches wide, these gaps were twelve inches deep. Trucks made by other manufacturers have similar step arrangements, but the gaps are either nonexistent or much narrower. A five inch gap is wide enough to allow a firefighter’s boot to fall into, and there is no functional purpose for such a wide gap. In this case, after the truck left the road, the firefighter’s foot was bouncing uncontrollably because the truck was jolting over rough terrain and tipping to the right. At the wrong moment, as the truck hit the tree, the man’s foot fell into the gap. As the front door was crushed inward, his foot was entrapped and crushed also.

The crashworthiness argument in this case was fairly simple to present. Under Maine’s product liability law, to win it was necessary to show that the risk inherent in the product outweighed its utility. The defect argument was that the wide gap presented a risk of entrapment and serious injury, but had little utility. A narrower gap between the door and the step would have served just as well, and would have kept the firefighter’s foot out of danger.

Our proximate cause argument, always a critical part of any products case, was supported by the fact that no one in the truck suffered any injury whatsoever except the man with the crushed foot.

Even he, who was sitting directly at the point of impact with the tree, was completely unharmed above his right ankle.

The fire truck case illustrates some important points. First, it was undisputed that the truck did not cause the accident. The Chief clearly caused the accident. However, in a crashworthiness case, the issue is foreseeability of the crash, not who is to blame for the crash.

Second, the case demonstrates that elaborate and expensive expert proof is not always necessary. In most crashworthiness cases, plaintiff must find a way to measure the crash forces and prove, with engineering authority, that the vehicle (or its door structure in this case), should have been designed and built to withstand the force of the crash.

Here, however, the crashworthiness argument was not that the door was too weak. Rather, we narrowed the argument to focus on the unnecessary gap between the floorboard and the door. Being wide enough to allow a human foot to become entrapped and crushed, the gap was a design defect. To prove the case, we only had to show that a narrower gap was feasible and useful, and prove proximate cause. By narrowing the defect argument, we were able to avoid spending tens of thousands of dollars on engineering work.

Finally, this case illustrates the financial importance of crashworthiness cases to victims. The firefighter was fortunate enough to have workers compensation benefits to sustain his family immediately following the collision. However, the workers’ compensation law provides very limited economic benefits, and renders the Chief immune from tort liability. Without the crashworthiness case, the firefighter would have been left with no remedy for his pain and suffering, no compensation for the loss of his ability to walk normally, and a severely constricted financial future. Being able to reach the manufacturer with a viable products liability claim changed all of that.

V. Why Crashworthiness Cases Go Unrecognized

It seems likely that there are many potential crashworthiness cases which go unrecognized. Here are some reasons why that might be true:

  1. Most people think about potential tort liability in terms of “fault” for causing an accident event. If a negligent driver causes a crash, and if the tort analysis stops at that point, the victim may be shortchanged. Crashworthiness analysis actually starts with the assumption that there has been a collision, and does not hinge in anyway on who caused the collision.
  2. People get confused about the role of comparative fault. As pointed out above, crashworthiness analysis is unrelated to who caused the collision. Even if plaintiff drives himself or herself off the road, the vehicle is supposed to provide protection from the foreseeable forces of the crash. In a crashworthiness case, as in any products liability case, simple comparative negligence should not be a defense. Most authorities, including the Law Court in Austin v. Raybestos-Manhattan, Inc., 471 A.2d 280 (Me. 1984), hold that the only viable defense related to plaintiff’s conduct is voluntarily proceeding to encounter a known risk. This is a difficult standard for a defendant to meet in most products cases.
  3. Many crashworthiness cases arise in a one vehicle context. This may lead victims and their families into wrong thinking about fault as outlined above, and to fail to think of the possibility of a products case.
  4. The investigation may start too late. Critical pieces of evidence in every crashworthiness case are the vehicle(s) involved and items at the scene which reflect the force and direction of the impact. Guardrails, trees, stones and stonewalls, buildings, gouges in the road, tire marks — any of these features at a crash scene may tell an important story to trained investigators. Especially when accident victims are severely injured, their families and friends may focus so intensely on the medical issues that no thought is given to preserving the evidence necessary to prove the crashworthiness case. Sometimes a late investigation can succeed on the strength of police photos, but it is not safe to assume that photos will be available.

If it is true that these cases are going unrecognized, the best antidote to the problem is thoughtful lawyers who understand what is at stake and how to go about protecting their clients.

VI. Conclusion

Crashworthy does not mean “crash-proof.” It simply means that crash forces are foreseeable, and that vehicle occupants should be provided with a safe zone within the vehicle which protects them from those forces. In summary:

  1. Restraint systems should keep occupants within the protective cocoon of their seats;
  2. Vehicles should respond to crash forces in a pre-engineered, safe way so that parts of the vehicle (including the steering wheel and engine) do not intrude into the passenger’s space;
  3. The fuel system should not contribute to a post-crash fire.

By keeping these basic ideas in mind and thinking creatively, lawyers can assist vehicle accident victims and their families by encouraging them to give early consideration to the possibilities for crashworthiness remedies in what otherwise might look like bleak circumstances.