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Brett Emison
Brett Emison
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Reclined Seat Caused Colorado Teen’s Death

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Television station Fox 21 in Colorado has reported that a jury determined that a reclined seat caused the death of a 16-year-old Monument, Colorado girl in 2007.

Even though most auto passengers do not understand the serious risks from reclining your seat while the vehicle is moving, auto makers (like Ford, GM, Chrysler, Toyota and Hyundai) have known about this danger for more than 40 years!

From the Fox 21 report:

It was a long, ill-fated drive as her parents painfully recall.

“Rebekah had to work that day,” said their father, Stu Goodner. “My daughters thought they were doing the safe thing. They were taking turns driving.”

So while Rebekah took the first shift Sarah reclined her seat to get some rest.

”Somewhere along the way Rebekah fell asleep at the wheel,” Stu Goodner said. “Sarah woke her up and she [Rebekah] over-corrected — she was 16 at the time — and she over-corrected and the car rolled over three times.”

Both girls were wearing their seatbelts. Rebekah Goodner’s belt held her in, but Sarah Goodner, who was reclined, slid out from beneath hers.

“Rebekah actually called me after the accident occurred,” said the girls’ mother, Lisa Goodner. With tears in her eyes and voice cracking, she explained the phone call. “She said ‘Mom, I can’t find her, I can’t find her!’ I said, ‘You can’t find who?’ She said, ‘I can’t find Sarah.’”

Sarah Goodner had been thrown out of the back window and died from head injuries.

Ironically, it had been the Tucson’s five-star safety rating that sold Sarah’s parents on the vehicle.

“We thought we did the right things: purchasing a good car and a safe car and teaching our children [to wear] seatbelts,” said Lisa Goodner.

After this accident Sarah’s parents wanted to know the reasons why her death happened.

“We wanted to know why. Why both girls in the exact same wreck, both wearing their seatbelts, why one walks away with a stiff neck and the other doesn’t walk away at all?” explained Stu.

The parents took the case to court.

On April 22, 2010, a federal court in San Angelo, Texas ruled Sarah Goodner’s death was Hyundai’s fault and awarded a $1.8 million judgment in favor of the plaintiff.

The auto industry has known about these dangers for years. Reclined seat dangers were even the topic of a May 10, 1988 recommendation of National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) chairman Jim Burnett:

On May 10, 1988, Jim Burnett, chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) recommended to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) that they "limit the angle of inclination allowable in reclining seats in passenger vehicles."

In the same document Burnett also recommends “If car manufacturers had limited the angle to which seats could be safely reclined, the death of a 7-year-old boy in one of the safety board’s cases could have been prevented, as well as other injuries."

Twenty years later nothing has changed, and the Goodners have lost their daughter.

Our firm was not involved in the Goodner’s case, but have investigated reclined seat dangers for more than a decade. In fact, some of our clients have been featured in news reports across the country:

What Is The Risk of Reclined Seats?

If your car seat is reclined, a three-point restraint (lap and shoulder seat belt) becomes essentially useless because the shoulder harness moves away from the passenger. Seat belts do not work — and, in fact, can make injuries worse — if they are not properly designed (proper "seat belt geometry") or not properly worn. However, most passengers simply assume they will be safe if they are buckled up. Few people understand that the more space between the seat belt and the passenger’s chest increases the risk of death or serious injury caused when your body either slams against the seat belt itself or "submarines" and slides beneath the seat belt.

Auto makers have known of these risks since at least the 1964 Stapp Car Crash Conference. However, car manufacturers have lobbied Congress to prevent any regulation and there are still no Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards (FMVSS) — federal minimum standards — governing this danger. Because there are no federal minimum standards, car makers have refused to provide warnings or alter the vehicle to eliminate or even reduce this hazard.

Emily Bazelon of Slate.com wrote about these dangers after suffering her own injury in 2007. Amy’s article discussed a Langdon & Emison client and the auto industry’s knowledge of the danger:

Federal transportation safety officials started worrying about the risks of reclining car seats back in 1988. Since then, the medical literature has bolstered the case for concern. Yet somehow, car manufacturers have never been required to put warning labels on car seats like, for example, the ones that detail the dangers of air bags.

What Can Be Done?

There are several easy and inexpensive solutions for auto makers to eliminate or reduce the risk of harm from reclined seats:

(1) Car makers could prevent seats from reclining beyond a pre-determined angle while the vehicle is moving. This is the safest, but most controversial choice. This solution eliminates the risk but also eliminates consumer choice. In addition, car makers argue that it is difficult to assign a predetermined "safe" reclining angle because of the difference in human body types.

(2) Car makers could design the seat belt system into the seat itself — what is known as "integrated seat belts" or "all belts to seat" (ABTS). These systems incorporate the seat belt into the seat design to create a much safer and effective "seat belt geometry." While not completely eliminating the danger, these systems keep the seat belt placed on the body no matter where the passenger reclines the seat back. ABTS systems are much safer than restraint systems in which the seat belt is mounted to the B-pillar (as shown in the photograph above).

(3) The cheapest and simplest solution is to warn occupants of reclined seat danger so that the occupant has the ability to decide for herself if she wishes to trade safety for comfort. Studies have shown that warnings will both inform and remind passengers of potential dangers. A warning costs virtually nothing to implement and will save lives.

(4) Car makers could also incorporate a visible or audible warning — just like they already do with seat belt warning lights and chimes. Takada (a major seat belt manufacturer) patented just such a device almost 20 years ago. If GM, Ford, Chrysler or Toyota will warn you to use your seat belt, why won’t they warn you to keep your seat belt effective?

As the Slate.com article pointed out — the incredible lobbying power of the car makers has prevented any government regulation of this safety defect:

Kent Emison, the lawyer who wrote about this for Trial, which is published by the Association of Trial Lawyers of America (now called the American Association for Justice), won a $59 million verdict against Toyota on behalf of a man who had both legs amputated below the knee after an accident in which his seat was reclined. Emison points out that along with warning labels, there are other ways for automakers to reduce the danger of reclining seats. They could install a warning bell, or make it impossible to put the car in drive unless all the seats are upright. But he says that NHTSA won’t require any safety measures, even a label, because of the lobbying power of the car manufacturers.

Car Makers Need to Do More

Car makers need to do more to protect the public from this hidden danger. In 2005, a Florida jury awarded our client, Tami Martin, $17 million after she was paralyzed and rendered paraplegic after a minor collision. Tami was reclined, sleeping in the vehicle and her seatbelt could not protect her.

After the verdict, Tami offered to return 50% of the judgment back to Ford if the automaker would only put a safety sticker in all of its vehicles warning passengers never to recline their seats while the car is in motion.

Ford refused.

Tami and our local counsel, Angelo Patacca, were featured on the CBS Early Show:

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You can learn more at our safety blog and become a fan of Langdon & Emison on Facebook.