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Crashworthiness Defined: Will your vehicle adequately protect you in a collision?

Crashworthiness Defined: Will your vehicle adequately protect you in a collision?

Just the other day in a vehicle defect case, during my deposition of a defendant’s “expert” in a vehicle defect case, the expert looked at me and said:  “I don’t know what you mean by this term you keep using – the term ‘crashworthiness.'”  I asked him to use his definition.  He said he couldn’t because he wasn’t familiar with the term.  I was flabbergasted.  How can an expert for a vehicle manufacturer, someone who is supposed to be an expert engineer in the field of vehicle safety, have no idea what crashworthiness is or how to define it?  OK, I get the fact that he may have been playing dumb for a reason, but still, there the guy was – on a video depostion – for all the world, the jury, and the judge to see – defending his product without knowing how (or without admitting how) to define crashworthiness.  Hence, the inspiration for this post.

Defining crashworthiness is really no more difficult than thinking about the word itself.  If something is “worthy” of a crash, it has the ability to withstand and protect those people involved in the crash.  The concept applies to every kind of vehicle – cars, trucks, semi-trucks (18-wheelers), airplanes, helicopters – you name it.  If it moves and is susceptible to an impact in a collision, it should be “crashworthy.”

When looking at it in a legal context, crashworthiness, or more precisely lack thereof, can lead to a claim for damages when someone is injured.  A vehicle that is not crashworthy is defective.  A defect that causes injury or death can be the subject of a legal claim.  It’s easier to explain with examples:

First, you can have a vehicle where the manufacturer cut safety corners for cost reasons.  The most-often-cited example is the Ford Pinto.  As Public Citizen (a non-profit, non-partisan organization dedicated to consumer safety) has written about the Pinto:

The Ford Pinto was affordable, gas efficient, and stylistically pleasing– but lacked one essential element: safety. Ford discovered fatal design flaws in the gas tank during a routine crash test performed right before production of the Pinto was to begin. Ford’s crash tests revealed that several design defects in the fuel tank and rear structure exposed consumers to serious injury or death in 20-30 mile-per-hour collisions. In April 1971, shortly before the 1972 Pinto was placed on the market, Ford’s vice president of car engineering, Harold MacDonald, chaired a product review meeting to discuss a report that had been prepared by Ford engineers. This report recommended deferring, from 1974 to 1976, the incorporation into all Ford cars, including the Pinto, of either a shock absorbent “flak suit” to protect the fuel tank at a cost of $4 per car, or a nylon bladder within the tank at a cost of $5.25 to $8 per car.

This deferral would allow Ford to realize a savings of $10.9 million. Ford’s management knew that the gas tank created a significant risk of death or injury from fire but decided to go forward and begin manufacturing the new Pinto anyway, knowing that these “fixes” were feasible at nominal cost.

Another example occurs when manufacturers try to boost profits in the face of competition.  As Public Citizen has written about GM’s use of side-saddle gas tanks in GM/Chevy pick-up trucks:

The problem began when the trucks were redesigned in the late 1960s. At that time, the pickup truck gas tanks were inside the passenger cab, which of course was extraordinarily dangerous. As GM debated where to relocate the tanks, Executive Truck Engineer Alex Mair recommended in a 1964 memo that the new underbody gas tanks be placed as close as possible to the center of the vehicle, inside the frame rails. But the top brass at GM wanted to be able to advertise a truck that could hold more gas than the competitive Ford and Chrysler trucks, whose tanks were inside the frame rails for safety reasons. Ignoring safety, GM decided to place two 20-gallon tanks outside the frame, enabling them to boast in ads that GM truck owners could drive farther than in competitors’ trucks without having to stop for gas.

Placing gas tanks outside the frame makes them highly vulnerable to destruction in side-impact crashes. As one former GM employee said, these tanks split open “like melons.” Crashes produce sparks that ignite spilling gas, leading to fires that literally roast helpless victims. Another GM engineer said that the only worse place to put a fuel tank would be on the front bumper.

Both of these defects caused the deaths and injuries of thousands in post-collision fires  These defects were exposed during lawsuits, and many more like them are exposed during litigation every year.

The concept of “crashworthiness” in law and in engineering is a critical one.  Without knowing how to define it and make sure we develop it into our vehicles, we risk the lives of fellow citizens.  When those risks turn into injuries, they often become lawsuits.  We take our work on these product defect cases seriously.  These cases are expensive to prosecute and involve one of the most important aspect of personal injury law: consumer protection and safety by preventing manufacturers from repeating their mistakes and errors in judgment.

Edwin Lamberth

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