Motor vehicle accidents can happen at any time, but it is false to assume that most of these types of accidents are 'caused' by drivers. The actual 'cause' of an accident is not always the legal cause of all of the occupants’ injuries. “Enhanced injuries” are often sustained because the vehicle was not crashworthy.
Since we opened our doors in 1979, Murphy & Prachthauser has been an advocate for safer products and practices. We have been nationally recognized for successfully litigating cases against corporations that design or manufacture defective vehicles. Such defects, to name a few, include faulty airbags, car roofs, seat belts, seats, and gas tanks.
If you suspect that a manufacturing or design defect played a part in your collision, contact our legal team for a free case evaluation.
The concept of a crashworthy vehicle derives from the aviation field and refers to the capacity of a vehicle to protect all of its occupants from injuries in an otherwise survivable crash.
Crashworthiness is a measure of a vehicle’s capacity to protect occupants from injuries in every type of impact.
An automobile manufacturer has a legal duty to design and manufacture vehicles that provide for the safety of the occupants in foreseeable vehicular accidents. The most common types of injury-causing vehicle defects are:
To learn more about how these features fail and how crashworthiness is assessed after a collision, read this blog.
Of these defects, the most common deal with the roof, seat belts and airbags. Details on these defects are provided in the content below.
Although manufacturers have a duty to design vehicles to provide reasonable occupant protection in foreseeable rollover accidents, many have neglected rollover occupant protection until very recently. The manufacturers mostly ignored rollover crashworthiness since there was virtually no governmental regulation, except for a minimum, ineffectual governmental roof crush standard, Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standard (FMVSS) 216. The advent of SUVs, which roll over at a higher rate than passenger cars, and recent congressional scrutiny of rollover deaths and injuries have spurred increased attention to this issue from manufacturers.
As part of a vehicle’s structural support system, a roof creates a “non-encroachment zone” or “survival space” that should protect occupants in a crash. If a roof crushes substantially in an accident, occupants may suffer disabling head or neck injuries.
Rollovers are survivable if vehicles provide basic occupant protection. Unlike front or side impact crashes — where the vehicle has to absorb a large amount of energy in a short amount of time — in a rollover, energy is typically dissipated over a longer time and distance. Therefore, the forces on the occupants are often lower than in a frontal or side impact, making a rollover survivable with adequate occupant protection.
Vehicle defects that contribute to occupant injury in rollovers include:
Different parts of the occupant protection system — such as the vehicle’s roof structure, restraint system, side window glazing, door latches, interior padding, and side curtain airbags — should work together to protect occupants in rollover accidents. When one or more of these components fail or are missing, an occupant who might otherwise have suffered minor injuries or escaped injury altogether may instead be severely injured or killed.
Severe head trauma and spinal cord injuries are probable when a vehicle’s roof collapses into the survival space in a rollover. The entire roof structure should be designed as an integrated safety cage that will protect the occupants’ survival space. This requires structural integrity and strength of the roof system, including the roof pillars.
One of the most common types of injury in a rollover roof crush case is a neck fracture caused by flexion and shear forces produced when the roof crushes down on the occupant.
Other types of neck injuries include axial neck compression injuries and hyperextension neck injuries:
Brain injury can also occur by intrusion of the roof into the occupant space. Many manufacturers have ignored vehicle crashworthiness, relying on inadequate government standards. Manufacturers insist that the forces generated by the impact — not a lack of crashworthiness — cause the injury or death. This argument does not take into account that rollovers are among the most benign accidents because the vehicle decelerates over a long distance. Arguing that rollovers are random events that cannot be duplicated, manufacturers rarely conduct rollover tests to guide roof design or construction.
For many years manufacturers relied upon NHTSA’s FMVSS 216, which set minimum strength requirements for a vehicle’s roof crush resistance. This ineffective standard which was adopted in 1973 did not require manufacturers to conduct dynamic rollover tests on roofs. FMVSS 216 also failed to consider what material the roof is made of and how it is constructed. Consequently, it has led to:
On May 12, 2009, NHTSA upgraded FMVSS 216 and required roof strength to be strengthened. NHTSA wrote:
“. . . when a rollover does occur and the occupants have been contained within the vehicle compartment, it is important for the roof structure to remain intact and maintain survival space.” (Fed. Reg. Vol. 70, No. 90, p. 22350 (May 12, 2009).
NHTSA required that the roofs of vehicles under 6,000 pounds or less withstand three times the vehicle’s unloaded weight with the force being applied to both sides of the vehicle. Additionally, NHTSA now includes a new requirement for maintenance of head room (i.e., survival space) and limitation of roof crush during testing. Fed. Reg. Vol. 74, No. 90, p. 22348-22349 (May 12, 2009).
The purpose of a motor vehicle’s restraint system is to lessen an occupant’s risk of injuries in a crash. However, an improperly designed seat belt may cause greater injury and even death to occupants. A snug-fitting lap/shoulder belt ties the occupant directly to the passenger compartment and allows the occupant to “ride down” the crash. This eliminates the more severe occupant to interior “second collision.” Belts are also designed to distribute restrained loads over strong skeletal structures including the shoulders, rib cage, and pelvis to optimize protection during deceleration.
If you suspect a seat belt defect played a part in your collision, contact our legal team for a free case evaluation.
The most common type of auto accident is a frontal collision. In such collisions, occupants using a lap-only belt can “jackknife” over the lap belt. Jackknifing may result in fatal or severe abdominal injuries and/or spinal cord injuries or cause the victim’s head to strike the front seat or center console resulting in neurological injury.
A seat belt system that restrains the upper torso as well as the lower torso, e.g., 3-point belts, provides safer occupant protection than lap-only systems. Lap only belt cases often involve children and women since their smaller stature makes them more susceptible to harm from seat belts that are designed for the specifications of a 50th percentile male anthropomorphic dummy. These smaller individuals are often seated in the rear center seat using a lap-only belt when they are injured.
The dangers associated with lap-only belts have been known since prior to the early 1960s when the term “seatbelt syndrome” was coined. Since 1988, the Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standard (FMVSS) 208 has required the installation of 3-point belt systems for front and rear outboard seating positions. Additionally, NHTSA also required that all vehicles have 3-point belts for the center rear by 2007. However, there has been no effort to retrofit vehicles with lap-only belts in the center position. Therefore, millions of cars, minivans, light trucks, and SUVs on the road will have lap-only seat belts in the center rear for many years to come. In this frontal impact, the rear middle seat passenger only had a lap belt and suffered severe abdominal injuries.
In this frontal impact, the outboard rear seat passenger only had a lap belt and suffered severe abdominal and spine injuries.
In this frontal collision, both rear-seat passengers had only lap belts and suffered severe abdominal injuries.
The location in which seatbelts are anchored to the vehicle may not provide effective restraint in some accidents, including rollovers, because it permits excessive excursion of an occupant in a collision. If improper anchor points create a lack of balance between the upper and lower torso or shoulder belt and lap belt, then even though an occupant of a vehicle is wearing both the lap and shoulder belts, the occupant may suffer serious injuries depending upon where the imbalance lies. If the shoulder belt takes too much force in the collision, the chest or thorax may be injured. If the lap belt takes too much force, then a submarining effect may ensue. Thus, the lap belt and shoulder belt must proportionally distribute force over the occupant’s body. Testing done by the manufacturer may prove critical in establishing this type of defect.
“Submarining” occurs when a lap belt rides over the pelvis and penetrates the abdomen. When this occurs, the forces generated in a collision are shifted from the strength of the pelvis into the weaker abdomen of the occupant. Such occurrences may arise with a lap-only belt or an improperly designed lap/shoulder belt restraint system.
NHTSA’s submarining test demonstrates that test dummies wearing lap-only belts experienced substantially higher levels of injurious force to the abdomen, lower spinal cord area, and head than those wearing 3-point lap/shoulder belts. Moreover, submarining may be a result of a manufacturer’s improper anchor point design or improperly designed seat structure.
When seatbelt buckles are not equipped with anti-inertial unlatching features, the forces of an accident may cause the seatbelt to become unlatched thereby causing an occupant to become unrestrained.
With certain seatbelt designs, the seatbelt may unlatch due to dynamic loading conditions, thus depriving the occupant of the benefits of the vehicle’s seat belt. In such cases, evidence demonstrating belt usage, buckle to vehicle contact, or buckle to occupant contact is important. If you have a potential defective seatbelt case that you would like to speak to a lawyer about, either call 414-271-1011 or complete the information below and click submit. You will be contacted by one of our attorneys.
Airbags have been in widespread use since the 1990s. Although they are intended to reduce the risk of injury in motor vehicle collisions, airbag safety issues continue to cause severe injuries. Even with the introduction of “smart bags,” some airbags either fail to deploy when they should, or they deploy when they should not. Also, some airbags deploy too aggressively or too late.
Airbag design has become more complex over the years. For instance, many systems now monitor seat position, the weight of occupants, belt use or non-use to determine when and if an airbag deployment is necessary.
Airbags deploy in a fraction of a second, and some explode at approximately 200 mph. The design intent of the airbag is to have the airbag fully deployed before the occupant starts to interact with the airbag.
In a non-deployment airbag case, the airbag fails to deploy in a crash mode in which it was designed to go off. In a side or low impact accident, the frontal airbag is not designed to deploy. However, in a higher speed accident with a frontal component, a failure to deploy should be investigated.
In these cases, occupants can sustain injuries that could have been prevented if the airbag had deployed as intended and designed.
Airbags deploy in a fraction of a second. The design intent of the airbag is to have the airbag fully deployed before the occupant starts to interact with the airbag. In other words, in order to achieve maximum protection for the occupant, the airbag must inflate within milliseconds or before the force of the initial collision causes the occupant to move a certain distance toward the interior of the vehicle. If the airbag malfunctions and deploys too late in the accident sequence, the occupant will have moved into the airbag deployment zone and will be hit by an intruding airbag. This is especially dangerous given that an airbag can deploy at 200 mph.
In an accident where the airbag deploys but the belted occupant is severely injured, a number of airbag defects may be present. If the airbag comes out with such great force, and the volume is so large that it contacts the occupant while it is still deploying and before the airbag fully deployed, the airbag may be too aggressive and the airbag volume too large. Also, an airbag may be too aggressive if it deploys in a low-speed impact when it should not have deployed.
What else can go wrong with airbags? Learn more about airbag-related injuries in our article, Airbag Safety Issues: What Can Go Wrong With Airbags?
Although a collision may not be a “normal” or intended use of a motor vehicle, vehicle manufacturers must take accidents into consideration as reasonably foreseeable occurrences involving their products. The design and manufacture of products should not be carried out in an industrial vacuum, but with recognition of the realities of everyday use. For that reason “the manufacturer must evaluate the crashworthiness of his product and take such steps as may be reasonable and practicable to forestall particular crash injuries and mitigate the seriousness of others.” Doupnik v. General Motors Corp., 225 Cal.App.3d 849, 858-9, 275 Cal.Reptr. 715, 720 (Cal. App. 1990):
It is now universally accepted that the manufacturer is liable for injuries sustained in a vehicular accident because of a defect that was not the cause of the accident, but that caused or enhanced the degree of injuries suffered.
Almost every state has some variation of this law. In Wisconsin, Arbet v. Gussarson lead the way:
[I]t is not important that the defect did not actually cause the initial accident, as long it was a substantial factor in causing injury as alleged in plaintiff’s complaint. As this court held in Schnabl v. Ford Motor Co. 54 Wis. 2d 345, 353-54, 195 N.W.2d 602, 198 N.W.2d 161 (1972) (citation added):
. . . Appellant is not suing for total injuries, but for the death alleged to have been caused by the incremental injury which occurred because of the faulty seat belt. This court has held that ‘[t]he test of cause in Wisconsin is whether the defendant’s negligence was a substantial factor in contributing to the result.’ It need not be the sole factor, the primary factor, only ‘a substantial factor.’ Whether the delivery in Wisconsin of a faulty seat belt could have been a substantial factor in causing of the death of the deceased, even if it played no part in the accident, is a question of fact to be determined by the trier of fact.”
Our experienced team of motor vehicle defect lawyers have been taking crashworthiness cases to court since 1979. Take a look at some of our past vehicle defect cases to see if your potential case has similar elements.
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