An Overview of Crashworthiness
By Arnold W. Schwartz
The term crashworthiness means "the protection that a passenger
motor vehicle affords its passengers against personal injury or death
as a result of a motor vehicle accident..." 15 USC §1901 (14). The term
crashworthiness by definition implies that there are limits to injury
prevention or minimization within design engineering parameters usually
described by the technical feasibility and cost measured against degree
of foreseeable harm from a particular design.
Accordingly, the law of products liability/crashworthiness is in
effect a means by which society encourages the automobile manufacturers
to manufacture and design their vehicles to maximize safety in
foreseeable crash conditions.
Hence, plaintiff's counsel must keep in mind when litigating
automotive product cases, that the ultimate plaintiff strategy is to
identify the optimum design which would have proved an effective
countermeasure minimizing or eliminating the injury levels encountered.
There are two classes of crashworthiness cases. The first is
characterized by a defective design of the vehicle which contributes to
the occurrence of the accident itself such as rollover defects,
steering defect cases, etc. The other class of crashworthiness cases
falls within the rubric "second collision cases" which encompass
criticism of various interior features of the vehicle and structural
components which did not minimize or eliminate injuries after the
collision. Cases where occupants may not be adequately protected in the
event of a crash involve roof crush cases, seat belt failure cases, and
lack of adequate interior padding cases, etc.
This article will attempt to give an overview of crash-worthiness
litigation from the standpoint of (1) the legal principles involved,
(2) the areas of debate for case recognition purposes and (3) emphasize
the importance of thorough accident investigation and the need to
understand why and how certain occupant injury levels occur as a
predicate to determine whether a design defect proximately caused the
Basic Legal Framework
The leading case in the area of product liability law is Barker
v. Lull Engineering Co. (1978) 20 Cal 3rd 413, 143 Cal Rptr 225, 573 P
2d 443. In that case the Supreme Court identified two theories of
recovery, the consumer expectation test and the risk benefit test. The
consumer expectation test simply states that a product is defective "if
it failed to perform as safely as an ordinary consumer would expect
when used in an intended or reasonably foreseeable manner...." What
manner of proof would satisfy this particular test is subject to some
debate. Besides having to prove that the defective design existed in
the product when it left the possession of the manufacturer and that
the injuries resulted from a use of the product that was reasonably
foreseeable, it is unanswered as to whether in all cases using this
theory an expert must support the case. See Campbell v. General Motors
Corp. (1982) 32 Cal 3d 112, 184 Cal Rptr 891, 649 P2d 294 (holding
expert not needed especially in cases where defect is obvious to
general public.) Soule v. General Motors Corp. (1994) 8 Cal4th 548,
Fn.4 (Use of expert does not invalidate consumer expectation test). See
also, Pietrone v. American Honda Motor Co. (1987) 189 CalApp3d 1057,
235 CalRptr 137; Akers v. Kelley Co. (1985) 173 CalApp3d 633, 219
CalRptr 513. In Soule v. General Motors Corp. (1994) 8 Cal4th 548, 34
CalRptr2nd 607, the California Supreme Court clarified and condoned the
use of the consumer expectation test in crashworthiness cases. The
Court held that the use of the consumer expectation test depended upon
whether one could conclude "...that the circumstances of the product's
failure permit an inference that the product design performed below the
legitimate commonly accepted minimum safety assumptions of its ordinary
consumer..." Id., pg. 568-569.
The Soule facts involved a claim of crashworthiness of wheel
brackets and frames resulting in the left front vehicle wheel hitting
the floor board beneath the pedals, crumbling the floor and injuring
the plaintiff. The Court found that this involved such complex,
esoteric technical matters that they were incapable of influencing
consumer expectations of safety that the consumer expectation test was
inappropriate under the facts.
Following the reasoning of Soule, the Court in Bresnahan v.
Chrysler Corp., (1995) 65 Cal.App.4th 1149, 76 Cal.Rptr.2d 804 held
that the consumer expectation test applied to this crashworthiness case
involving a premature inflation of an air bag combined with the design
configuration of an automobile windshield in a minor rear end collision
producing plaintiff's hand and arm injuries. The Court noted that
"...ordinary experience may well advise the consumer what measure of
safety to expect from her car's side window assembly and air bag in a
minor rear end collision..."
The teaching of Soule and Bresnahan suggests that the consumer
expectation test is a viable theory in crashworthiness cases such as,
fuel fires, door ejections, etc., and will be applied on a case by case
basis with focus on the nature of the mechanisms involved and whether
it can be said that ordinary experience may inform a consumer of what
level of safety to expect. See Lunghi v. Clark Equipment Co., (1984)
153 CalApp3d 485, 200 CalRptr 387, holding expert testimony admissible
on establishment of consumer expectations; Bates v. John Deere Co.
(1983) 148 CalApp3d 40.
The risk benefit analysis test only requires plaintiff to prove
defendant's status as a manufacturer, retailer or otherwise, that the
design of the product that injured the plaintiff was the same as the
design of the product when it left the defendant's possession; that the
design of the product was a legal cause of plaintiff's injury; that the
product was used in the manner reasonably foreseeable by the defendant;
and the nature and extent of plaintiff's injuries. Once this proof is
made, the burden shifts to the defendant to prove that the product was
not defective by arguing that benefits of the product as a whole
outweigh the danger inherent in such design. Barker v. Lull Engineering
Co., Inc., supra, 20 Cal3d 413. Bates v. John Deere Co., supra.
Plaintiff's proof need not suggest an alternative design. Bernal
v. Richard Wolf Medical Instruments Corp. (1990) 221 CalApp3d 1326, 272
CalRptr 41. It may, however, be advisable to pursuade the jury by
asserting such alternative possible designs within given technology.
Additionally, the risk/benefit theory may also be proven without
an expert but one is usually needed. See Campbell v. General Motors
While the two theories enunciated in Barker require the plaintiff
to show the product was being used in a reasonable foreseeable way, it
is now clear that engineering design must take into account that
vehicles will be in automobile accidents. Cronin v. J.B.E. Olson Corp.
(1972) 8 Cal3d 121, 104 CalRptr 433, 501 P2d 1153. The manufacturer is
not only required to take high speed collisions into account but also
some degree of foreseeable misuse. Self v. General Motors (1974) 42
CalApp3d 1, 116 CalRptr 575. And the defect has to be shown to be the
proximate or substantial cause of the injury or enhanced level of
injury in question. Greening v. General Air Conditioning Corp. (1965)
233 CalApp2d 545, 43 CalRptr 662; Endicott v. Nissan (1977) 73 CalApp
917, 141 CalRptr 95. The doctrine of concurrent causation is also
applicable to strict liability. Thompson v. Package Machinery Co.
(1971) 22 CalApp3d 188, 99 CalRptr 281.
It should also be noted that the law does not require the
manufacturer of the product to make an accident proof vehicle. See
Henderson v. Harnischfeger Corp. (1974) 12 Cal3d 663, 117 CalRptr 1,
527 P2d 353. Also, the defendant can assert contributory negligence of
the plaintiff for causing the accident and/or not wearing seat belts
causing or enhancing one's injury levels. Daly v. General Motors (1978)
20 Cal3d 725, 144 CalRptr 380, 575 P2d 1162. See also, Housley v.
Godinez (1992) 4 CalApp4th 737. Additionally, defendant usually defends
on the basis that the accident didn't happen the way plaintiff
contends, that the injuries weren't related to any alleged defect, or
that an alternate design would entail unreasonable costs, be uneconomic
or impractical in view of the product's performance or create other or
increased risks. See Moreno v. Fey Manufacturing Corp. (1983) 149
CalApp3d 23, 196 CalRptr 487. See also, McClaughin v. Sikorsky (1983)
148 CalApp3d 203, 195 CalRptr 764 (State of the art defense). However,
custom and practice of the industry is not relevant and is
inadmissible. McGee v. Cessna Aircraft Co., (1978) 82 CalApp3d 1005,
147 CalRptr 694.
Principles of strict liability have also given birth to the
second collision case recognizing that vehicles must protect occupants
from foreseeable crashes. See Cronin v. J.B.E. Olson Corp., supra, 8
C3d 121. Cronin held that the manufacturer must evaluate the
crashworthiness of its product and take such steps as may be reasonable
and practicable to forestall particular crash injuries and mitigate the
seriousness of others. Buccery v. General Motors Corp. (1976) 60
CalApp3d 533, 132 CalRptr 605.
In addition to manufacturers, retailers and distributors of the
product may be held on this strict liability theory. Moreover, a
purchaser, user or bystander may recover for defects in design and/or
manufacture. See Vandermark v. Ford Motor Co. (1964) 61 C2d 556, 37
CalRptr 896, 391 P2d 168, Greenman v. Yuba Power Products, Inc. (1963)
59 C2d 57, 27 CalRptr 697, 377 P2d 897, and Elmore v. American Motors
Corp., (1969) 70 C2d 578, 75 CalRptr 652, 451 P2d 84.
Understanding Why and How Occupant Injuries Occur
Before one is capable of identifying a meritorious crash-
worthiness case, especially a second collision case, it is essential to
understand thoroughly how and why the injuries to the occupants
occurred so as to determine (1) that the defect had a casual connection
to the injuries and (2) that the level of forces unleashed in the
accident would not override feasible designs which could have mitigated
or eliminated the levels of injury.
Accordingly, retention of skilled and highly credentialed
accident reconstructionists are critical to properly understand the
accident sequence. For the accident reconstructionist to properly do
his or her job, it is imperative that the attorney advancing an
automotive product liability case, conduct a thorough investigation of
the facts of the accident.
The vehicle involved must be preserved in order to examine all of
its damage, including every scratch mark, paint transfer, or other
interior occupant impact points and the like, to reconstruct not only
the accident, but to eventually determine the Delta V of the occupants
(occupant change in velocity) which will lead to conclusions concerning
injury mechanism. It is clear that the change in velocity bears a
strong relationship to the level of injuries incurred. See Vern L.
Roberts and Charles P. Compton, Relationship Between Delta V and
Injury, SAE 93311.
Nature of the Investigation
A thorough investigation involves not only preserving the vehicle
but obtaining the police report, identifying all relevant witnesses,
obtaining design layouts of the roadway in question, visiting the scene
of the accident to determine configuration of the roadway, super
elevations and the like, obtaining medical records, x-rays, MRIs and
CAT scan data, paramedic reports, characteristics of the injured person
such as age, height, weight, clothes worn, etc., health of the injured
person, and repair history of the vehicle in question. Naturally all
photographs of the accident aftermath are essential.
All of this information must be assimilated by the
reconstructionist to document how the vehicles came together and at
what speeds they came together. This allows them to understand not only
the impact configuration, direction of force and force levels, but
occupant movement within the vehicle (kinematics) and their ultimate
change in velocities. This allows the biomechanical experts to
determine why the injury level occurred.
Naturally, it is an expensive investigation that must be done in
these types of cases as they normally involve catastrophic injuries
from major accidents which entail multiple emergency services and
evidentiary elements. An accident reconstruction and/or biomechnical
expert not armed with all of the facts from a thorough investigation,
will be vulnerable to cross-examination and easily made to look
incredulous in front of a jury. Without a clear understanding of why
and how the injury occurred, it would be impossible to make clear to a
jury why the design was defective and how it related to the causation
of injuries or the enhanced injuries involved in the case. See Hyde,
Alvin S., Hyde Associates, Inc., Crash Injuries: How and Why They
Happen, for an excellent discussion of why and how injuries occur in
motor vehicle crashes.
Principles of Automotive Safety Design
It is the objective of automotive safety design to "package" the
occupant such that stopping time of the occupant in the second
collision is elongated so as to ride down energy, distribute forces and
mitigate the ultimate forces imposed upon the body to minimize injury.
These general design principles have been stated by H. DeHaven,
Accident Survival - Airplane and Passenger Car, SAE 1716 (1952).
DeHaven enunciated the design principles of packaging as "(1) contains
and does not collapse upon the contents; (2) absorbs and distributes
impact forces; (3) restrains the contents, preventing contact with the
outer packaging, thereby allowing the contents to take advantage of the
energy absorbing characteristics of the package; and (4) transmits
impact forces to the strongest parts of the contents." No one seriously
questions these obvious design principles.
Areas of Design Defect Litigation
1. Roof Crush Case.
The roof crush case involves the allegation that the passenger
compartment collapses due to insufficient strength of roof structures
(A, B and C pillars) onto an occupant's head during a rollover,
compromising the passenger compartment space causing neck fractures and
possibly brain damage. Doupnik v. General Motors Corp. (1990) 225
CalApp3d 849, 275 CalRptr 715. The contention of the plaintiff is
generally that rollover accidents are a foreseeable violent accident
which occur more frequently in utility vehicles and pickup trucks
because of their higher LEFT of gravity characteristics, and produce
significant injuries which should be designed for in vehicle roof
Indeed, the literature suggests that there is a statistical
relationship between roof crush and injury. See Fan and Jettner, Light
Vehicle Occupant Protection - Top and Rear Structures and Interiors,
SAE 820244. See also, Huelke, Injury Causation in Rollover Accidents
(Proceedings of the 17th Conference of the American Association for
Automotive Medicine, Vol. 17, 1976).
Roof crush cases involve a rollover which may form another basis
of crashworthiness defect by alleging that the rollover should never
have occurred because of the instability characteristics of the
vehicle, i.e., unacceptable stability ratio expressed as T/2h (one-half
vehicle track width divided by its LEFT of gravity height).
Rollover, of course, can occur not because of the design of the
vehicle but because of a tripping mechanism (curb), a vehicle rolling
down a hill, or because of deflated tires.
While auto manufacturers need only conform to Federal Motor
Vehicle Safety Standard (FMVSS) 216 which involves a static load
imposed upon the roof sill, generally thought to be unrelated to
performance of the roof structure in a dynamic collision, this standard
is only minimal and does not preempt state common law. See Buccery v.
General Motors (1976) supra, 60 CalApp3d 533, 132 CalRptr 605, and
Cipollone v. Liggett Group, Inc. (1993) 112 S.Ct. 2608. Accordingly,
experts in the field must be utilized to reconstruct this complex
dynamic event which usually involves anywhere from one-quarter to more
rolls of a vehicle and complicated occupant kinematics to determine how
and why injury occurs.
Typically, the best cases of roof crush injuries will involve
lower neck fractures from C5 to C7 because of the roof collapsing and
compromising occupant space of the vehicle. The occupant most often
seriously injured is the occupant in the area of the most crush. The
best case involves a belted occupant since one would expect that when
wearing non-defective seat belts, he or she should experience minimal
injuries in foreseeable accidents involving rollovers. Compromise of
occupant space due to excessive roof crush should not be tolerated or
Normally, manufacturers defend these cases by first attempting to
show that the injury occurs to the neck because of the head protruding
through an open window being caught between the ground and the roof
sill, or by alleging that roof crush bears no relationship to cervical
fracture and/or brain damage because the occupant essentially dives
into the roof during the roll. For an excellent discussion of these
issues, see D. Friedman, K.D. Friedman, Roof Collapse and the Risk of
Severe Head and Neck Injury, 13th Experimental Safety Vehicle
Conference #91-S6-0-11 (1991); D. Friedman, K.D. Friedman, Light Truck
and Van (LTV) Rollover Safety, 1993 SAE International Truck and Bus
Meeting and Exposition. For the automotive industry's position on the
matter, see Orlowski, Bundorf and Moffatt, SAE 851734, Rollover Crash
Tests - The Influence of Roof Strength on Injury Mechanics (Proceedings
of the 29th Stapp Car Crash Conference, October 9-11, 1985); Moffatt,
K.F. Orlowski, J.E. Stocke, J.S. Bahling, R.T. Bundorf, G.S. K.S.
Pezyk, Rollover and Drop Tests, The Influence of Roof Strength on
Injury Mechanics Using Belted Dummies, SAE 902314 (1990). Naturally,
successfully advancing this type of crashworthiness case, involves
contentions that not only must the roof structures be strong enough to
withstand rollover accidents, but also that seat belts must be designed
to minimize occupant excursions onto interior component parts and that
the roof structures should contain sufficient padding with which to
absorb energy seen by the occupant to minimize head contact forces.
These countermeasures are discussed in the previously cited papers by
Friedman, et al.
2. Door Latch Failure Cases.
It is clear that automotive research has concluded that ejection
from the vehicle during a crash, whether rollover or otherwise,
increases the risk of injury in automobile accidents. See Huelke, P.W.
Giekas, Ejection - The Leading Cause of Death in Automobile Accidents,
Stapp Car Crash Conference, 10th Proceedings, SAE 660802 (1966); D.F.
Huelke and C.P. Compton, Injury Frequency and Severity in Rollover Car
Crashes as Related to Occupant Ejection, Contacts, and Roof Damage
(1982). Accordingly, automobile designers must design their vehicles
for foreseeable crashes that will not subject the occupants to ejection
as it is better to stay in the vehicle than be ejected from the
Accordingly, the FMVSS require that automobiles have burst- proof
door latches (49 CFR Sec. 571.206 (1983)) and windshield glass that
remains in place during foreseeable accidents (49 CFR Sec. 571.212
(1983)). See also, J.O. Moore, B. Turin, A Study of Automobile Doors
Opening Under Crash Conditions (1954); C.J. Kahane, An Evaluation of
Door Locks and Roof Crush Resistance of Passenger Cars - FMVSS 206 and
216 (1989), DOT HS 807489. While FMVSS 206 implementation has had an
impact on the door opening problem, recent studies suggest that it is
still an ongoing problem that needs to be redressed. See, for example,
M.W. Monk, L.K. Sullivan, D.T. Wilke, D.S. Cohen, Door Latch Integrity,
National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (1988) DOT HS HL7374.
In addition, other areas of the vehicle such as tail gates and
back door openings are also part of the issue and must be reviewed in
an appropriate case. See S. Paryka, Hatchback, Tailgate and Backdoor
Opening in Crashes and Occupant Ejection Through the Back Area,
National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (1990).
While FMVSS require only static loads be imposed upon door latch
components, dynamic crashes impose different types of forces resulting
in door openings and unnecessary ejection of occupants enhancing levels
While ejection from vehicles occurs more frequently in rollover
collisions, it can and does occur in other types of accident modes,
such as offset frontal collisions as well as during the spinning of
vehicles creating centrifugal forces sending occupants hurling into
vehicle doors and windows, causing their ejections.
In these cases manufacturers not only defend on the basis that
the ejection mode is unrelated to the alleged defect, that the design
is sufficient and has met the motor vehicle safety standards, but that
the occupant injuries occurred inside the vehicle before ejection. Once
again, the importance of accident reconstruction as well as
reconstructing the movements of the occupant and determining the point
of injury is essential to understanding whether or not the alleged
defect had anything to do with the causation of injury or enhanced
injury. See Blaisdell, Stephens, Meissner, Collision Performance of
Automotive Door Systems, SAE 940562.
3. Automotive Window Defects.
In connection with occupant ejection through door openings, a
similar principle obtains with regard to windows. As discussed earlier,
the front windshield made of laminated glass is for the purpose of
shattering in a way that keeps occupants in the vehicle in a frontal
collision and minimizes lacerations.
It has been argued that other areas of the vehicle, such as side
windows and rear windows should be made of glass plastic and/or
laminated glass similar to the front windshield in order to allow for
occupant containment during foreseeable crashes. See for example, D.F.
Huelke, J.C. Marsh, IV, L. Dimento, H.W. Sherman, W. J. Ballard, Jr.,
Injury Causation in Rollover Accidents (1973).
Today developments in laminated glass used in the front
windshield and glass plastic glazing allow these applications to be
used in not only side but rear windows, especially those that are
fixed, to maximize the ability to contain the occupants in foreseeable
crashes. See C.C. Clark, P. Sursi, Rollover Crash and Laboratory Tests
of Ejection Reduction by Glass Plastic Side Windows and Windshields,
SAE 890218 (1989); Clark, Sursi, Car Crash Tests of Ejection Reduction
by Glass Plastic Side Glazing, SAE 851203 (1985); Lyman, Smart, Windows
for Automobiles, SAE 90049; An Evaluation of the Effects of Glass-
Plastic Windshield Glazing in Passenger Cars, DOT HS 808 062 (1993).
FMVSS 205 permits but does not require use of glass plastic
glazing in side windows. See 49 CFR 571.205 (1992); See Final Rule
Amendment of FMVSS 205, Glazing Materials to Permit the Installation of
Glass Plastic Glazing as Windshield and Windows in Motor Vehicles, 48
FR 52061 (November 16, 1983).
4. Failure To Provide Interior Padding.
In keeping with good automotive engineering design, automobile
designers have long recognized padded surfaces on such structures as
the interior underside of the roof, roof rails, header and support
pillars so as to protect against serious injury in rollover collisions
and other collisions. See Friedman, Light Truck and Van (LTV) Rollover
Safety, supra, and Friedman, Roof Collapse and Risk of Severe Head and
Neck Injury, supra.
Given the high incidence of head injury in accident statistical
evidence, it is expected that FMVSS 201 dealing with these matters will
be revised to require a new performance standard to be adhered to by
automotive manufacturers to increase head impact protection. See Notice
of Proposed Rule Making, Head Impact Protection, Docket No. 92-28, 58
FR 7506 (February 6, 1993). Accordingly, the incidents of a serious
head injury in any given crash especially with belted occupants should
pique the interest of counsel to inquire further as to potential design
defects in the interior surface padding structures which possibly could
have alleviated or mitigated significantly the injuries involved.
Making oneself familiar with the standards involved, and the automotive
design literature, will enable one to better assess the merits of this
type of case. Daniel, A Bio-Engineering Approach to Crash Padding, SAE
5. Seat Design Defects.
Crashworthiness issues with regard to automotive seats turn on
the engineering principle that the rear or upright portion of the seat
should act as a restraining mechanism in rear-end impacts. In other
words, it should absorb energy much like seat belts do in a frontal
impact and not collapse out of the way of the occupant thereby losing
its restraining force, allowing the occupant to hurl about the vehicle
either hitting hard interior objects or ejecting through window
Unfortunately, FMVSS 207 calls for inadequate static loading
tests of seats without assessment under real world dynamic loading
However, FMVSS 301 requires dynamic - crash testing for fuel tank
integrity and is a fruitful source of information from various
manufacturers to see how their seat backs collapse in equivalent 30 mph
barrier collision crashes.
The criticism is that seats are not made stiff enough, with
appropriate head rests, such as to withstand forces generated in lower
impact situations. Because of the loss of seat back integrity,
occupants are thrown about the vehicle possibly slipping out from under
seatbelts receiving avoidable serious injuries. For an excellent
discussion of these design issues, see Severy, Derwin, et al.,
Institute of Transportation and Traffic Engineering, Back Rest and Head
Restraint Design for Rear-End Collision Protection. SAW Publication No.
680079, January 8-12, 1968; Saczaliski, Syson, Hille and Pozzi, Field
Accident Evaluations and Experimental Study of Seat Back Performance
Relative to Rear Impact Occupant Protection, SAE 930346; Blaisdell,
Levitt, Varat, Automotive Seat Design Concepts For Occupant Protection,
Defenses in this area generally turn on the contention that the
crash severity was too great for any seat back to resist, or that the
occupant was not wearing a seat belt which would have prevented the
ejection, and that any stiffer seat mechanism might increase other
types of neck injuries. Reading the literature is essential to
understanding prosecution of this type of crashworthiness case.
With regard to seat back collapse, there may be cases involving
seat anchorage failures that may also contribute to a similar
circumstance. Each case must be examined on its own facts to see
exactly what happened to the seat and how it contributed to the
6. Side Impact Defects.
With the advent of automotive safety and the recognition that
safety belts and air bags are essential ingredients of automotive
design safety, more and more people are wearing seat belts and driving
vehicles with air bags. These devices are critical in frontal type
crashes to help the occupant ride down the energy. Seat belts also play
a significant role in energy management in other types of crashes, such
as side and rear end impacts, as well as rollovers. As these devices
are tested, the real world of accidents has revealed many of the
shortcomings of these safety implements which have contributed to
Many of the claims made in seat belt failure cases deal with
concepts of webbing spool out, passive restraint system defects, or
other defects in the locking mechanisms where slack is induced into the
belt system, which undermines the very purpose of the seat belt system.
FMVSS 208, 209 and 210 deal with this area of concern and should be
read by the practitioner.
Pre-tensioners are usually advocated by safety conscious experts
as they generally tighten the seat belt on an occupant when an accident
first begins thereby maximizing the ride down of energy an occupant
will see during a crash.
Other concerns involve the angles at which the seat belt
mechanisms are attached to the floor for proper retention of the
occupant and may be a factor in defect analysis in rollover collisions
especially when the occupant is allowed to experience excursions that
could have been prevented. For discussion of some of these issues see
J.E. Shanks, A.L. Thompson, Injury Mechanisms to Fully Restrained
Occupants, 23rd Stapp Car Crash Conference 1979. See also J. Haberl, F.
Writzl and S. Eicshinger, The Effect of Fully Integrated Front Seat
Belt Systems on Vehicle Occupants in Frontal Crashes, Experimental
Safety Vehicle Conference, May 8, 1989. Also, a common area of
litigation is the lap belt only in rear seats alleging that absence of
a three point harness is defective and enhances injuries in frontal
Another potential issue arising with seat belt failures is the
claim that inertial forces cause the seat belt latch plate mechanism to
release from its housing. James, Allsop, Perl and Stuible, Inertial
Seat Belt Release, SAE 93064; Hoch v. Allied Signal, Inc., 24 CalApp4th
48, 29 CalRptr2d 615.
In these types of cases, it is normal to see evidence that no
seat belt was found around the driver and/or occupant post-accident,
even though the injured occupant insists that he or she was wearing the
belt. To the extent other information can be used as corroborating
evidence such as eye witnesses, belt marks on the body, or stretch
marks on the belt goes a long way to proving such a case. It is
important to see what the occupants said immediately after the crash to
paramedic personnel or others in the hospital to determine if any
contrary statements were made relative to belt wearing.
Sometimes seat belt latching plates release due to slapping of
seat belt receptacles together if they are not divided by a console
mechanism or other such device.
Accordingly, when a significant automobile injury case is being
reviewed, one should first determine if the injured occupant was seat
belted and if so, suspicion should be directed to the seat belt design
systems as a possible cause of the level of injuries sustained.
7. Side Impact Defects.
Side impact crashworthiness cases are classified by location of
injured occupant, i.e., the near-side occupant (the occupant on the
side of the vehicle which is first stuck by the incoming striking
vehicle), and the far-side occupant (the occupant farthest away from
the incoming striking vehicle). In protecting the near-side occupant,
general principles of crash management come into play such that the
side structure of the vehicle must be designed so that it is stiff
enough or rigid enough to withstand incoming forces to lower the
velocity with which the door impacts the near-side occupant. It has
been shown that when door locks, door hinges or side structures
collapse, or are insufficiently strong, the near-side occupant
experiences the incoming vehicle velocity which normally is quite high
thus causing serious to fatal injuries.
In these types of cases, the allegation is usually made that
adequate force deflecting padding be placed on the interior of the side
structure and stiffening be implemented concerning the side structure
through side beams and other methods so that the side structure does
not collapse during a crash and absorbs occupant energy. For a
discussion of these issues, see Daniel, Roger P., Biomechanical Design
Considerations for Side Impact, SAE 890386 (1989); Schuller, Eric,
Injury Patterns of Restrained Car Occupants in Near-Side Impacts, SAE
890376 (1989); Kahane, C.J., The Effectiveness and Performance of
Current Door Beams in Side Impact Highway Accidents in the United
States, (Proceedings of the 9th International Technical Conference on
Experimental Safety Vehicles, November, 1982).
With regard to the far-side occupant, the issue is making certain
to restrain the far-side occupant within the passenger compartment
space so as to prevent or minimize contact with the collapsing side
structures or parts of the striking vehicle. To accomplish this, not
only would stiffening of the side structure improve the situation, but
so would reverse seat belt geometry as well as seat design improvement
such as winged seats. It should be noted that 3 point harnesses in some
side collisions do not restrain the occupants' movement toward the
intruding side structure thereby suggesting different seat belt design
to avoid this event. Dalmotas, Injury Mechanisms to Occupants
Restrained by Three-Point Seat Belts in Side Impacts, SAE 830462;
Horschetal, Response of Belt Restrained Subjects in Simulated Lateral
Impact, SAE 791005.
FMVSS 214 is the applicable governmental regulation which again
does not take into account dynamic testing and has been criticized by
many in the field insisting on better regulation and testing and more
requirements for side impact crashworthiness.
Accordingly, to recognize a potentially meritorious side impact
case, one usually detects little or minimal damage on the striking
vehicle and massive intrusion damage to the struck vehicle. This
usually can be relied upon as a good indicator that something was wrong
with the struck vehicle side structure or side impact protection
warranting further inquiry.
Handling automotive crashworthiness cases is not only a difficult
task but it is an expensive endeavor. These cases are not only complex
but generally require that the trial lawyer become thoroughly familiar
with the automotive industry design literature and governmental
regulatory history to understand fully and in context the nature of the
defect in question, the automotive industry's response thereto and the
ability to correct the situation. These cases usually examine the
degree to which the automotive industry has compromised safety to the
detriment of the consumer. The well-informed product liability lawyer
is the only means by which the automotive industry can be kept in check
to make certain that it gives safety a prominent role during the design