San Antonio Verdict Lays Bare Auto Seatback Defect

Just days after a Bexar County jury awarded a San Antonio family $124 million in a lawsuit, car safety experts nationwide are asking for action on what they refer to as a serious auto seatback defect that is very dangerous, even though it could potentially be fixed for a few dollars.

The rear-end car accident that led to the huge award happened in 2012. The impact caused the driver’s-side seat back of the 2005 Audi A4 to collapse onto Jesse Rivera, Jr., which left the boy, who was seven years old at the time, with a depressed skull fracture. He now has severe brain damage, blindness and partial paralysis. Jesse’s family then sued Audi AG and Volkswagen Group of America Inc. and last week, the jury deliberated for three days before deciding to award the family $124 million. Jesse is now 11 years old and requires full-time nursing care and probably will for the rest of his life.

Now auto safety experts are saying that such a seatback failure is due to a common design flaw and they are calling on the government to do something about it. At least one study has shown that, when they are rear-ended, both front seats in many vehicles can collapse backwards, which can then cause the driver and/or passenger to end up in the backseat area and can lead to backseat passengers injuries, especially small children.

In this particular case, Jesse was sitting in the back seat, directly behind his father at the time of the accident. His father, Jesse Rivera, Sr. placed him there because he had been told that was the safest place for him. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) has been advising parents to place children in the back seat because it’s safer. He was unaware that there was another danger, and that it is more common than many realized before. The driver’s seat broke, launching him into his son. At the same time, the Riveras’ younger son, Patrick, was seated behind the empty passenger seat and was uninjured.

According to Volkswagen, the seats were designed to absorb the impact of a collision. At trial, their attorney even noted that the seats are supposed to collapse, saying that the seat was absorbing energy. Safety experts are now noting that the company didn’t bring in a design engineer to testify on their behalf and that the company’s sole defense seemed to be that the seats exceeded federal standards for strength, a standard they say is far too low. They have also noted that the NHTSA has been aware of the potential for seatback collapses for many years, but that the agency stopped considering changes in the standard in 2004 because the design challenges are difficult and these types of accidents are rare. One study, however, shows that, since 1989, more than 100 people have suffered severe injuries as a result of this design problem, including 17 small children who were killed.

These same safety experts have said that the problem can be fixed and fixed relatively cheaply, at a cost of a few dollars, at most.  They also noted that several car makers have already strengthened their seats to well above the NHTSA standard and did so many years ago. Recently, the Center for Auto Safety filed a petition with the NHTSA urging them to issue a warning to parents of the potential danger of a seatback failure and to create a new standard for seat backs.

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