During the past several months, our firm has reviewed several new potential cases involving seat back collapse. These cases all involved relatively late model vehicles where the seat backs collapsed in a moderate speed rear end crash, resulting in severe spinal cord injuries.
Seat back collapse litigation has been ongoing between injured consumers and the automobile industry for at least thirty years. Despite decades of litigation and untold millions of dollars paid to injured consumers, the industry continues to pump out millions of lower end vehicles that have cheap seats that fail.
As a result, seat back collapse lawsuits are, unfortunately, still alive and well. As with the cases we’ve recently reviewed and handled in past years the fact pattern is generally the same: client is a driver or passenger in a vehicle which is stopped at a light or stop sign. Their car is rear-ended by another driver at a moderate speed – typically 20 to 35 miles per hour. The client’s seat back collapses, throwing them backwards. The client is paralyzed or suffers a catastrophic head injury due to the structure of a collapsed seat back rupturing their spinal cord or causing their head to hit the back of the vehicle. Even though the crash was one that should have only resulted in minor injuries, the client has permanent catastrophic injuries.
This problem generally only affects lower end vehicles with poorly designed seats. Cost of the seat is usually always a factor. These injuries do not happen to occupants seated in vehicles with good seats – think Mercedes, Volvo, etc…
Tragically, the worst of these cases involve injuries to back seated children. When a seat back collapses, if there is a child seated directly in back of the occupant whose seat collapses, the child can be injured when the front seated occupant’s head slams into the child’s face or chest. We made an advocacy video about one of these cases several years ago that involved a four year old client of ours named Alyssa Perrino. Alyssa suffered a catastrophic brain injury when her grandfather’s car was rear ended. His seat back collapsed resulting in his head impacting Alyssa’s head. Had the seat back not failed she would have likely not been injured.
Studies dating back to the early 1960’s show the industry has been well aware of the need for properly designed seat backs for decades. In 1968, after extensive testing, researchers determined that rigid seat backs guarantee 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. A well designed seat balances both of these factors to result in good crash protection for occupants. Unfortunately a good crashworthy seat costs money, and when some companies cut costs it comes at the expense of more dangerous seats that fail when they should protect.
In 1967, the NHTSA first published Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standard 207, which calls for a uniform 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 rearward. The seat will pass if there is only minimal rearward bending. For example, an empty seat equal to 10 pounds is required to withstand a static load of only 200 pounds before collapsing. FMVSS 202, adopted in 1968, similarly sets loading limits for headrests. This is an absurdly low minimum standard and has no correlation to whether the seat will protect occupants.
Some manufacturers build good seats that are designed to protect occupants. Other manufacturers design their seats to only pass the minimum safety standard. This still happens today with certain lower end makes and models, despite decades of litigation and industry insiders knowing full well that many vehicles have cheap seats that will fail in certain crashes. As a result, for certain cars, moderate rear end crashes will continue to result in seat backs collapsing and occupants being injured.