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"Seat Back Failure" a Life-Threatening Defect

Jun 5, 2008
"Seat back failure" is a life-threatening defect in many automobiles that cause numerous injuries and deaths each year. There are estimates that in 1990 there were 1,100 fatalities and 1,600 serious injuries due to seat collapses in rear-ended collisions. These injuries could have been prevented had the seat backs been designs been replaced with proven safety measures that have been readily available for decades.

The underlying problem is that the national safety standard does not require adequate seat strength and many manufacturers would rather install cheaper, more dangerous seats in the lower priced lines of their cars and trucks than the more expensive, safer seats. Every American automobile manufacture has had complaints regarding seat back failure.

Seat backs fail under various circumstances. However, the ultimate cause of these failures is the rearward collapse of the seat back by an occupant's body mass. Some seat backs fail due to the relative acceleration of this mass during a collision, whereas others fail under the weight of the occupant while the vehicle is either stationary or traveling at a constant velocity.

The two most common types of collapse are the failure of the seat back support system to maintain an upright position and the deformation of the seat back frame itself. Failures that have been attributed to deformation of the mounting system that holds the seat to the vehicle floor or to a collapse of the vehicle floor pan are less common. Another problem is the detachment of adjustable head restraints during an accident.

When a vehicle is impacted from the rear, the forces of the impact propel the vehicle forward and the occupants are thrown backwards. The seat back should be able to keep the vehicle's occupants safe by keeping the individual from ejection, and from striking interior components or other passengers. If designed properly, the seat back should keep the occupant in a secured upright position. When a seatback collapses rearward in an accident, many serious conditions arise:

- The driver can lose control of the vehicle if unable to sit upright while the vehicle is in motion, causing multiple collisions and further injury

- Partial or complete ejection from the vehicle, when the occupant has slid out from under the seat belt

- Interior impacts, by the occupant into the interior structures of the vehicle or into the other occupants

- A front seat collapsing can cause serious injury or death to the rear seat occupants trapped underneath the collapsed seat back

- Blocking of the exits, in the event that that a ruptured fuel system has caused a fire

There can be catastrophic results of seat back failure. Injuries to occupants of collapsing seats often include devastating or fatal head and spinal cord injuries. These injuries occur when the occupant's seat collapses and allows the occupant to strike the rear seat or the b-pillar in the back seat. Injuries to the occupants behind collapsing seats often occur when the occupant of the collapsing seat strikes the passenger seated directly behind the collapsing front seat. The contact between the two occupants often results in fatal or devastating head or chest injuries.

The safety standards for automobile seats are viewed as being too lenient and not updated to protect vehicle occupants form injuries otherwise avoidable. Automobile seats are only required to pass a strength requirement. They are not required to go through a crash test rating system even though seat backs regularly fail during National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) 30-mph rear impact crash tests (FMVSS 301). The hazard of seat back failure originates from the inadequate Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standard (FMVSS) 207 - Seating Systems. This current standard has not been updated in over thirty years. It requires that a seat must withstand a pull of 3,300 inch-pounds applied about the seat back in a rearward direction.

The NHTSA has been petitioned numerous times to strengthen its existing standard. They have received complaints of seat backs collapsing in more that two dozen different cars, including models made by all of the American automobile manufacturers. The standard is so inadequate that the majority of the petitioners are asking for an increase at least 6-fold. That would increase the pull that a seat must withstand from 3,300 inch-pounds to about a 20,000 inch-pounds.

Ford Motor Company has been aware of dangerous seats for over 30 years. This deadly problem was investigated by Ford in 1992, and the outcome was that the seats cause serious harm in the event of rear-end collisions. The Ford Motor Company did not make any design changes to combat the seriousness of the seat back failure.

Bisnar|Chase represented a mother of a seven year old girl who died as the result of a seat back failure. The plaintiff and her daughter were rear-ended at 25 miles per hour while in a Ford Escort. As a result of the faulty seats, the mother's head struck the daughter in the chest, causing the daughter's heart to rupture, as well as internal bleeding. The young girl died one day later.

In 2000, another Ford Escort was in a rear-end accident that caused a man's death. When the Ford Escort was rear-ended, the driver's seat collapsed backward, hurling him into the rear of the car's cabin. The man was fatally injured by the impact of the car's rigid interior.

The Ford Explorer is another Ford model that has had a history of seat back collapse injuries. Our client was in a rear end accident when her seat collapsed backward ejecting her into the back of the vehicle. The impact severed her spinal cord and left her a paraplegic.

Virtually every front seat produced by General Motors Corporation (GM) from 1970 to the mid 1990's was designed to collapse rearward in an impact in which there was a speed change of 15 miles per hour or greater. According to documents obtained by CBS for its series on seats collapsing in rear-end collision, in 1992, GM attorneys advised top executives that there standard seats could no longer be defended.

GM knew, as early as 1966, that seat strength is directly related to occupant safety in a rear impact collision. They have known that the occupant survival depends largely upon a front seat structure that holds the passenger in an upright position, yet, they have not upgraded there seats. A leading GM engineer, David C. Viano, in a 1994 internal GM study, projected that 376 to 470 lives could be saved each year and estimated that improvements would prevent 1,000 serious injuries each year in rear-end collisions if the company strengthened its seat backs.

DaimlerChrysler has been known to have seats collapse as well. In 2001, a mother, one of our clients, was driving one of the manufacturer's minivans and was ejected from her seat during a crash due to a seat back collapse. The collapsed seat caused the mother to fatally strike her 8-month old child, who was in a car seat behind her.
About the Author
John Bisnar is a partner at Newport Beach Personal Injury Law Firm Bisnar Chase. The Bisnar Chase law firm has dedicated their practice to victims of serious injuries due to defective products, negligence and malpractice.

Visit the main website at http://www.bestattorney.com or call 888-265-0161
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