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Mark Bello
Mark Bello
Attorney • (877) 377-7848

Are Automakers And Government Agencies Ignoring A Deadly Seat Back Danger?

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It can happen in an instant! Eleven-year-old Jesse Rivera, Jr. is living with the consequences of a seat back failure. He was sitting behind his father in the backseat of his family’s Audi sedan when it was rear-ended in San Antonio, Texas in 2012. The crash left young Jesse brain damaged. He is also partially paralyzed and blind in his right eye. The child will need care for the rest of his life.

The child’s parents filed a lawsuit claiming the seat back of their 2005 Audi A4 was too weak to withstand a rear-end crash. When the front seat collapsed, the driver, the boy’s father, was launched into his son who was sitting in the back seat.

Despite the fact that the Audi seats in question met or exceeded the federal standard for strength, after watching crash test videos, the jury ruled young Jesse’s injuries resulted from Audi’s “gross negligence.” The crash test videos showed how when cars are hit from behind, the front driver and passenger seats of many vehicles can collapse backwards, launching the occupants into the backseat area. In making their decision, the jury assigned 55 percent of the responsibility for the accident to Audi, 25 percent to the driver that rear-ended the Rivera’s and 20 percent on Rivera, Sr. The elder Rivera was not wearing a seat belt and Jesse, Jr. was not in a booster seat at the time of the accident. The jury ordered Volkswagen’s Audi group to pay $124.5 million. Audi denied any defects or fault and may consider an appeal, according to a company spokesperson. The verdict doesn’t include punitive damages.

Internal documents show that nearly every major auto manufacturer has been accused in a court of law of manufacturing unsafe, flimsy seat backs that are prone to fail in a rear-end accident. Through interviews with attorneys and reviewing court cases, a CBS News investigation team identified more than 100 people nationwide who were severely injured or killed in apparent seat back failures since 1989. The majority were children; seventeen of whom died in the past 15 years alone. Despite this, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), bowing to industry pressure, has not updated regulations. In a statement last October, NHTSA Administrator Mark Rosekind told CBS News:

“NHTSA has long recognized that the agency’s seatback standard is decades old, but we’ve also had to acknowledge the reality that while even one death is too many, severe rear impacts are rare compared to other crash types, and crashes where seat collapse can be determined as the cause of injury are even more rare. This makes demonstrating measurable safety benefits that meet the requirements of the rulemaking process very challenging. In addition, although simply requiring increased rearward seat strength is not a technical challenge, doing this in a manner that assures that no harm is done in very frequent low speed rear impacts is technically challenging. We’re working to improve our ability to quantify the potential safety benefits of improving rear impact protection. We’re also working hard to promote the use of automatic emergency braking, which research by NHTSA and others has shown can sharply reduce the number and severity of rear-impact crashes, including those that could lead to a seat collapse. Whether it is through rulemaking or other means, we’re committed to saving lives through every tool available.”

“There’s no excuse for NHTSA’s inaction on this serious safety defect,” says Clarence Ditlow, executive director of The Center for Auto Safety. In an earlier case, one engineer being deposed said strengthening the seat backs would cost “on the order of a dollar or so.” For one dollar, young Jesse could be running around and learning like other 11-year-olds. One dollar!

The Center for Auto Safety has filed a petition with NHTSA, urging the agency warn parents of the potential danger and to create a new seatback standard. Even when governmental safety standards fail the America people, auto makers should adhere to safer designs and promote a necessary standard of safety. While the efforts are too late for little Jesse and his family, Rivera Sr. said “Your children are at risk and if you don’t write your legislator and tell him to do something about this thing, nothing is going to be done.  “More children are going to be hurt. And it could be your child.”

Mark Bello is the CEO and General Counsel of Lawsuit Financial Corporation, a pro-justice lawsuit funding company.