Seat back integrity and seat back strength is the key to preventing a seat back failure in a rear end collision. The goal of product design in the automotive industry is to design a safety system, which reduces or prevents injuries, not one that can enhance or causes new injuries. Unfortunately many failures of seating back systems, seat tracks and seat hinges cause many serious injuries and deaths every year. A seat back needs to withstand the energies of a crash without buckling or failing. A seat back needs to hold and help absorb energy, not fail or give way. When a seat back failure occurs in a rear end collision, the seat belts may fail to hold the body to the seat allowing the person to be ejected backwards. When this occurs, the body can impact the back roof pillar, another rear seat passenger or be ejected out the rear window. All of these options can result in head injuries, spinal cord injuries or even death.
The same types of injuries can also occur in frontal collisions when the In front-end crashes, the vehicle’s forward movement is abruptly stopped, and seat belts and air bags keep the occupants from hurling forward. The goal is to maintain the occupant in an upright position and to prevent the body from striking hard surfaces and other occupants or from being ejected. In a Willis Law Firm case against Chrysler, a seat track failure occurred in a frontal collision in which the failure of the seat track gear caused the entire seat with the client’s wife to be thrown into the dashboard. She suffered massive head injuries and died as a result of this seat track defect and failure to hold. All other seats and seat tracks held and the other 3 occupants were not seriously injured. Former automotive crashworthiness and seating system expert Billy Peterson testified that the gauge of the metal used in the seat track assembly was too thin and flimsy and had heavier metal stock been used, the seat track would not have deformed under a load and no failure would have occurred.
Willis Law Firm Client rendered a C-5 ASIA D, Paraplegic when the seatback hinge collapsed during a rollover accident. The client was seat belted and not ejected. The GM Astro Van seatback hinge failed, allowing seatback to collapse. According to seat back expert engineers, due to the seat back failure and more particularly the seat hinge failure, my client was “thrown about like a ragdoll” during the rollover with no protection. Though belted, he slipped out of the belt and was ejected backwards and believed to have impacted the back roof pillar known as the C-pillar. The impact broke his neck and he was diagnosed as a paraplegic. No other persons were seriously injured in this accident. A products liability lawsuit was settled shortly after suit was filed for a confidential amount. Chevrolet has not issued a recall – seat back hinge or latch. (Pictures below are from the actual seatback hinge in question)
When a vehicle is struck from the rear, the forces work in the opposite direction. The car is then abruptly propelled forward, and occupants are thrown backward. The safety objective of a seat back is to remain upright while cushioning and containing the occupant’s body. If the seat back collapses or fails, the occupant can be ejected or lose control of the vehicle and be exposed to otherwise avoidable multiple crashes. The occupant can also be hurled into the vehicle’s rigid interior structures or other occupants. The collapsed seat back can make it difficult for crash victims to get out of the car, an especially hazardous defect when a fuel system has ruptured and a vehicle is on fire.
In real world, low-speed, rear-impact crashes, flimsy seat backs have failed to provide adequate protection. Fully investigated “fender bender” cases dramatically demonstrate that seat back failures in low-impact accidents have resulted in severe or fatal injuries. Poorly designed adjustable head restraints add the hazard because they can be adjusted flush with the top of the seat back, allowing the occupant’s heads to pivot over the headrest. This can cause severe spinal injury, even paraplegia and quadriplegia.
The importance of seat rigidity in rear-impact crashes has been known for many years. Studies show the industry was well aware of the need for properly designed seat backs as early as the 1960’s. After conducting an extensive test program of rear-impact collisions, a researcher conducted in 1968 that rigid seat backs assure more effective support of the occupant during rear-end collisions, providing the seat back support is high enough to also resist rearward movement of the head. Conversely, a seat that yields appreciably rearward places the motorist in a semi-reclined posture that may serve to attenuate some of the injury-producing forces but at the same time adversely displaces the motorist to high elevations relative to the seat back, thereby reducing the measure of support that may be derived.
Non-catastrophic injuries to the head and neck have also been documented in engineering and scientific literature. These injuries are exacerbated by poor seat back construction, including poorly designed headrests. In 1967, the agency promulgated FMVSS 207, which calls for a static loading test for seats and seat backs. The test simply requires that an empty seat be attached to a pulley and a static load 20 times the empty seat weight is applied with minimal rearward bending. For example, an empty seat that weighs 10 pounds is required to withstand a static load of only 200 pounds before collapsing. FMVSS 202, adopted in 1968, similarly sets static loading limits for headrests. As cars have become lighter to meet fuel economy requirements, so have car seats. The result has been a corresponding reduction in the minimal level of protection provided by a grossly inadequate standard. While seat belts and shoulder harnesses are required to meet dynamic crash test conditions in which the test vehicle collides with a concrete wall at 30 miles per hour, no similar requirements exists for the seat back in rear-impact collisions. Tests dramatically illustrate how a seat back can collapse in a real world, rear-impact crash and still meet the performance requirements of FMVSS 207.
Virtually every front seat produced by General Motors from 1970 mid 1990’s was reportedly designed to collapse rearward in impact in which there was a speed change of 15 miles per hour or greater. In fact, GM’s own tests document this seat collapse in crash tests. When an occupant is rear-ended at a speed greater than the 15 miles per hour threshold, then the seat back collapses ramping the occupant to increase chances of spinal, neck and head injuries, resulting in paralysis.
On October 2, 2000 the federal regulators announced that they started an investigation regarding a recall of 136,300 Saturn vehicles with faulty seat recliners. Saturn has already recalled some of its 1994-95 model year cars in March of 1999, because of potentially faulty seat backs that could recline or collapse suddenly. The recall was limited to models in between January 31, 1994 and August 15, 1994. The front seat back recliner gear teeth may wear excessively through repeated use, and cause the seat to slip partially rearward when force is applied. If left unrepaired, the wear will continue and may result in the seat back fully reclining when force is applied. If this happens while the vehicle is being driven, it could cause a loss of control and a crash or in a rear end collision the seat back failure can launch and eject the occupant out the window.
If you or a loved one has been injured as a result of a seat back failure, seat collapse or a seat track latch defect, then you may have a product liability lawsuit against the manufacturer of the vehicle and the seat component. In a seat back failure defect lawsuit, if a seat back defect is proven by a seat back expert, the injured party may file a lawsuit or legal action for the injuries or losses that they have suffered. The Willis Law Firm has represented hundreds of seriously injured victims of defective seat backs, tracks, defective seat backs, seat belts, airbags, roof crush and rollover cases over the past 30+ years. The Willis Law Firm has helped its clients to collect 100’s of millions of dollars in compensation from the SUV and passenger vehicle manufacturers and seating and safety systems manufacturers. Mr. Willis is a Board Certified Personal Injury Trial Lawyer certified by the Texas Board of Specialization.