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Many readers don’t know this, but it’s possible that tilting your vehicle’s seat back to rest or take a nap can dramatically increase the risk of serious injury or death.  Even though this issue is just as important as that of defective tires, most consumers and passengers don’t understand these risks, auto makers (like Ford, GM, Chrysler and Toyota) have known of this danger for more than 40 years.

If your car seat is reclined, a three-point restraint (lap and shoulder seat belt) becomes more or less useless because the shoulder harness moves away from the passenger. Seat belts fail — and, in fact, can make injuries worse — if they are improperly 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.  But car manufacturers have lobbied Congress to prevent any regulation and there are still no Federal Motor Vehicle Saftey 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.

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 predetermined 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.
  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. Takata (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?

Reclined seat attorneys taking a case to trial must prove that the reclined seat defect caused or worsened the plaintiff’s injuries. Often times, attorneys can show that out of several vehicle occupants, only the passenger in the reclined seat suffered serious injuries.

Our firm has earned several significant verdicts in cases involving dangerous reclined seats, including a record-setting $59 million verdict against Toyota in Baltimore, Maryland and a $16.94 million verdict against Ford in Jacksonville, Florida.  When possibly bringing this type of suit against a manufacturer, attorneys must have a qualified team of experts who can explain the defect and injury mechanism to the jury. Your team must include (1) a vehicle design expert; (2) an accident reconstructionist; and (3) a biomechanical engineer. In addition, a qualified warnings expert should counter the auto industry standard defense that “people should know better.”

More on head and spine injuries.

More on auto product defects.

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