Car crashworthiness is a life and death concept. The widespread, decades-long failure of auto manufacturers to adhere to this concept has brought mortal injury or lifetime disability to millions upon millions of Americans. The flawed state of seat belt and seat back design and performance is one of the chief causes. Car crashes are foreseeable and often unavoidable. But whether caused by bad weather, inexperienced driving, defective vehicle components or any other condition, the crashes themselves do not in many cases need to produce deadly injuries. Frequently, when serious injuries do result, it is because the companies that manufactured the cars failed or refused to make those cars adequately crashworthy.

Cohen Milstein Sellers & Toll PLLC have won many verdicts and settlements on behalf of victims of poor seat back construction or seat belt design.

Seat Belt Defects

In the vast majority of cars on the highways today, we are buckling up with deficient, defective, damaging or deteriorating belts. Yet the car companies, which have conspicuously joined the "buckle up" chorus, have done little or nothing to remedy this national hazard. And federal safety officials do not seem to care. The bottom line is that motorists need to buckle up, but they need safe, hazard free belts. As belt use soars, injuries caused or aggravated by belt soar with it. It is tragic enough that car companies fail to build sufficient overall crashworthiness into their cars. But when they do not care enough even to provide optimum safety in seat belts, components that exist solely for safety purposes, it is a scandal. Today that scandal is exposing a large majority of Americans to horrendous injuries from the very system provided to protect them.

Inertial Unlatching: Over 100 million cars in America have seat belts with the release button on the front face of the buckle. In some frontal collisions, rollovers and side impacts, the release mechanism can be initially disengaged when the back of the buckle hits a hard part of the seat structure or of the human body such as the iliac crest of the pelvic bone or hip. While manufacturers deny the existence of the defect, crash test film in the public domain at the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) clearly shows the belt unlatching in frontal collisions. Since 1990, there have been several landmark cases against American and Japanese manufacturers for this defect. The issue received national attention on September 9, 1992, when it was explored by CBS News.

Excessive Slack: The Windowshade Effect: Prior to 1990 more than 100 million cars in the United States had front seat shoulder harnesses that incorporated what the manufacturers called a "tension relieving" device also known as a "windowshade." The windowshade is familiar to drivers and front seat passengers. While seated in a car fully belted, one would notice periodically that the shoulder harness would become slack and begin to droop. By tugging slightly downward on the belt, the retractor would activate and the belt would tighten back up against the body. However, the slack would be introduced again through normal body movements such as leaning forward to adjust the radio, etc.

A loose belt is a grave hazard in a crash. According to NHTSA tests, even an inch of slack can substantially raise head injury force levels, and a few inches can largely eliminate the belt's effectiveness. Further, a slack belt can promote or allow ejection or severe submarining. The windowshade promotes slack both by encouraging the belt wearer to make the belt loose and by allowing slackness -- sometimes many inches of it -- to creep into the belt without the wearer's knowledge.

Door-mounted passive belts: In a well intentioned but poorly considered effort to increase seat belt usage, some manufacturers in the 1980s introduced belt systems with the outboard anchorage of the belts mounted in the structure of the door or door frame. This can be dangerous when a door unintentionally opens because it allows for the possibility of ejection.

Rear seat lap-only belts: In the late 1980s the severe danger of rear seat lap belts was first identified. Often, unbelted front seat occupants in frontal collisions survived with minor injuries while back seat passengers restrained by lap-only belts suffered paraplegia, head injury and, in some instances, death. Children are particularly susceptible to this danger. Their delicate muscular and skeletal structures, coupled with the frequencies of children seated in the back seats of cars, exposes them to rear lap belt injury. The news, however, came as no surprise to the auto manufacturers. They have been aware of the dangers of lap-only seat belts for more than 30 years.

Shoulder-Only Belts: In a 1970 study by a leading biomechanics expert, it was found that "the upper torso belt can produce a more serious injury than the lap belt... this type of strap can cause severe injuries to internal organs or the neck [when the wearer slides out of the belt]. Even a lap strap alone was considered preferable... The should-only belt design can be found on many older model vehicles still on the road today and as recently as 1990 such belts were being sold in the United States and are still permitted under NHTSA standards.