Defective Seat Backs and the Consequences of Years of Inaction

By Member Lawyer

Safety regulators and the auto industry have known for years that many seats can fail in moderate- to high-speed rear-end crashes. CBS recently performed its own seat back test and found that a banquet chair could pass the outdated federal seat strength standard. Tests have been performed on lawn chairs that passed the federal seatback strength standards, which have not changed since the 1960s. The Modernizing Seat Back Safety Bill has recently been introduced and is intended “to issue a final rule revising motor vehicle seat back safety standards.”   According to the Center for Auto Safety, “an average of 50 children a year are killed by these seatback failures” that the legislation seeks to address. An unknown number of serious injuries are caused by seatbacks that fail when a vehicle is struck from behind, even at what otherwise would be considered a low impact speed. 

In 1992, 60 Minutes aired an expose about the poor quality and design of Chrysler’s seatbacks. This led to recommendations by Chrysler’s engineers to use stronger seats like those of Daimler Benz. Those recommendations were not followed.

Clarence Ditlow, the executive director of the Center for Auto Safety, testified before Congress that more than 10 million seats manufactured by Chrysler were unsafe, but manufacturers, because of additional development costs, did not modify the design. Confirming the findings of the Center for Auto Safety, this year, over thirty years later, CBS News obtained crash tests from multiple automakers showing that, when cars are hit from behind, the front seat can break and fall backwards, potentially launching the front seat occupants into the rear of the vehicle. 

Auto manufacturers have been aware – for more than 40 years – that the seat designs they use can cause injury to passengers involved in a foreseeable rear impact. The problems have been seen in many manufacturers’ minivan platforms. A Complaint filed in Gilreath v. FCA US, LLC, lists 29 incidents involving seat back collapse, 11 of which were minivans with model years 1985, 1989, 1993, 1996, 1998, 2000, 2003, 2004, and 2006. Honda was fined $70 million in 2015 for failing to report deaths and injuries in its vehicles to the federal government, including injuries resulting from seat back failures.

In Flax v. Daimler Chrysler Corp., a Nashville, Tennessee jury awarded $96 million in punitive damages against Chrysler in a claim that the front seat in 1988 Dodge Caravan collapsed backward in a low-speed, rear-impact and its occupant struck and killed a child seated in a second row.

In that case, Chrysler produced evidence of several hundred incidents of its seats collapsing. The trial court, after reviewing those incidents, found that the 37 were sufficiently similar to admit into evidence. In Flax, the plaintiffs contended that the Chrysler front passenger seat in its 1995 Chrysler Sebring was an alternative design that would have protected the child. The Tennessee Court of Appeals, and later the Supreme Court of Tennessee, upheld the award of punitive damages and found that the plaintiffs presented clear and convincing evidence Chrysler had consciously disregarded the known, substantial, and unjustifiable risk that the design of its seats posed to occupants. 

Safety regulators say the safest place to put children is in the back seat but that does not always keep them safe when manufacturers prioritize savings over safety. While product liability suits may hold manufacturers accountable for putting defective seat backs in the stream of commerce, we will all be better off when vehicle manufacturers create vehicles with a better designed seat back that will keep drivers and passengers safe.

Trevor Neely
Author: Trevor Neely

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