Defective Car Seatbacks in Accidents
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 CBS recently performed its own seatback test and found that a banquet chair could pass the outdated federal seat strength standard.
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. This year, over 30 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 backward, potentially launching the front seat occupant 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 seatback 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.
There are recliner rods in many manufacturers' seats that cause them to fail in a rear-end collision. 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. According to one estimate, roughly 50 children have been killed each year since 2001 in rear-end crashes, and experts say that some of those fatalities were likely from front seats collapsing backward.