Raymond Paul Johnson - Civil Litigators - Los Angeles, CA

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Raymond Paul Johnson
Raymond Paul Johnson, A Law Corporation
2101 Rosecrans Avenue, Suite 3290
South Bay Los Angeles
El Segundo, California 90245


I. Introduction

It’s a fact of life.  In a rear-end collision, people in the struck vehicle move rearward, towards the striking vehicle.  The laws of physics require it.  As a result, your seats are your primary occupant protection in rear impacts.  This is pretty basic, yet people continue to be killed, paralyzed or brain-damaged each year because some front seats are not strong enough to absorb the loading of just one occupant.

As a result, the seatbacks collapse rearward causing seatbelts to become loose around front-seat occupants, and allowing those people to ramp up the seatbacks into the rear of the vehicle.  As explained below, this can cause life-threatening injury to both front and rear seat-occupants, as well as loss-of-control by the driver which can result in other collisions or rollovers.

These hazards are recognized by auto manufacturers and even described in vehicle owner’s manuals which warn people never to recline their seats while the vehicle is in motion because seatbelts become less effective.  Unfortunately, many seats are so weak that this same hazard can exist during any moderate-to-severe rear collision, as the seatbacks collapse.

The specific dangers of collapsing seats and the lack of adequate safety standards in this area are described below.  In addition, the telltale physical evidence showing how and why people are injured by collapsing seatbacks is described.  Finally, the author reviews defenses posed by some defendant manufacturers in these cases, and their efficacy.

II. The Dangers of Collapsing Seats

The deadly dangers from collapsing seats are very real, yet continue to be largely overlooked by vehicle manufacturers, and even safety agencies.  The resulting risks endanger front-seat occupants, and people (including babies and children) in rear seats.

A. Front-Seat Occupants

As mentioned, when seatbacks collapse, those in the front seats can be ejected rearward out of their seatbelts.  These victims can suffer head trauma, neck injury, or spinal cord damage from striking the rear seats and other areas at the back of vehicles.  This author, for example, has handled cases across the country that have included skull fracture, permanent brain injury, and quadriplegia.

During rear collisions, when the front-seat occupant’s head strikes rigid or hard (unfriendly) surfaces at the rear of the vehicle, the head stops relatively quickly.  This rapid contact with rigid objects often results in severe brain damage.  For example, the head can strike metal areas around rear windows, vertical members that support the roof (called pillars), or other inadequately  padded surfaces in the rear of the vehicle.  The injury can be combined with neck trauma if there is sufficient compression, flexion, extension or rotation of the neck.  In other instances, the front-seat occupants can be partially or fully ejected out rear or side windows, slamming into the road or other vehicles.

Once the front-seat driver or passenger is ejected rearward because of the weak seatback, the head can also strike the padded rear seat, which can bend around the head like a “baseball mitt” catching a baseball.  In those instances, the head stops relatively slowly but the body continues to load the neck, often in compression.  When enough energy remains and the body’s tolerance to spinal loading is exceeded, severe dislocation and/or fracture of the neck can occur.

Another mechanism of injury is rotation, where the head stops, the body twists, and the neck is loaded.  Spinal injuries in such situations liken to the old adage that “a chain is only as strong as its weakest link.”  If the head is loaded in a seat-failure situation, the cervical vertebrae can fail and result in quadriplegia.  In some cases, a basal skull fracture or ring fracture can occur in conjunction with the neck injury.

If the shoulders are loaded, however, the thoracic vertebrae are more likely to fail.  This is because, if the head “misses” the rear seat or another object, the load is applied further down the spine, and paraplegia can result.  The typical situation occurs when the rearward ejected occupant’s head misses the rear seat, and the bottom of the neck and top of the shoulders are loaded beyond tolerance.

This author has also investigated devastating incidents where front-seat occupants have been ejected rearward through side windows or rear windows (called rearlights) or even hatchback windows.  These rearward-ejected occupants have hit road surfaces, other striking vehicles, the edges of guardrails, power poles, guide wires, trees and other objects outside the vehicle.  Death, paralysis and/or permanent brain injury can and does result.

B. Children and Other Rear Occupants

Collapsing front seatbacks create other dangers, including the unacceptable risks of severe or fatal injury to those most vulnerable, children or babies in the rear seat.  This danger is particularly egregious today because, in the 1990s, airbags were found to be killing and maiming babies and children in the front seat.  As a result, the automotive industry and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) advised parents to put children in the rear seat to avoid airbag hazards.

With weak seats, the resulting problem is that rearward ejected front-seat occupants can become battering rams, smashing the heads and chests of children.  This has caused death, as well as skull fractures and severe brain injury to children in the back seat.  In addition, severe neck and chest injuries such as ruptured hearts, torn aortas, and punctured lungs (due to broken ribs) can result, despite the use of child safety seats.  These hazards have been demonstrated in litigation-related crash testing, as well as in actual collisions.  See Figures 1, 2 and 3, respectively.

III. Other Dangers

Rear-seated occupants, both adults and children, can also be trapped by failed front seats that collapse onto their legs.  This author has handled cases where rear-seated people have burned to death in rear impacts simply because they could not escape from the vehicle when the front seats collapsed onto them. 

In fact, it can be virtually impossible to exit rear-seat areas in some SUVs and vans with multiple rows of rear seats if the forward seats collapse rearward, unless one has the time and ability to crawl up and over the seats.  The likelihood of that however becomes far less if the victims have already been injured or entrapped by the collapsing seats.

IV. Current Federal Safety Standards are Inadequate

The collapsing front seat violates the survival space of rear-seat occupants and rips away the safety of the seatbelt for front-seat occupants.  Logic dictates that the strength standards for automotive seatbacks should, at least, be comparable to the existing minimum safety requirements for lap and shoulder seatbelts in frontal collisions.[i]  They are not.

Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standard (FMVSS) 210 for frontal collisions applies to lap and shoulder seatbelts, and requires 6,000 pounds of combined load capacity.[ii]  This minimum load capacity was based on testing which measured the human tolerance to impact.[iii]  For example, it is well known that a 200-pound man can easily generate 6,000 pounds of total load on a restraint system in a typical 30G frontal impact.  It was established, more than forty (40) years ago, that a shoulder belt must therefore withstand a minimum of 3,000 pounds of load (i.e. half of the expected load) to adequately restrain the upper body of an adult in a frontal collision.

Those same force levels can just as easily occur in a rear impact, where the only available occupant restraint is the seat itself.  Be that as it is, today’s federal standards allow seats in American vehicles that need only withstand essentially 300 pounds of loading, approximately ten percent (10%) of the safety requirement for a safety belt.[iv]

Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standard (FMVSS) 207 is the minimum federal standard that allows this low-level seat strength.  Because FMVSS 207 specifies no injury criteria, however, most manufacturers agree that it is not an occupant protection standard in the sense of FMVSS 210 (frontal collisions) or 208 (side collisions).  In fact, litigation testing in the past has demonstrated that a typical office task chair, a typical pool-side chair and even a chair made of cardboard would pass the strength requirements of FMVSS 207.  Despite this knowledge however no occupant protection standard with minimum injury criteria for automotive seats has ever been established by the federal government.

V. Defenses Posed by Various Manufacturers

Some automotive manufacturers try to defend “collapsing seatback cases” by arguing that they intended for the front seats to yield in order to absorb crash energy, and/or avoid soft tissue and other injuries in less severe rear collisions.  Therefore, the argument goes, “perfectly rigid seats” which do not “yield” are unsafe.

The counter-argument is that no one is suggesting “perfectly rigid seats”.  Stronger seats do not have to be “perfectly rigid” or rigid at all.  The solution is to provide seats that yield some, but not enough to eject front-occupants from their seatbelts during rear collisions.

Just as importantly, no manufacturer has yet to test or specify exactly how much “yield” is needed for safety.  If a manufacturer actually intends that a seat “yield,” then it should test to determine how much “yield” is necessary, at what rate, and under what loading conditions, and then establish design specifications for the yield.  Without those tests, yield is just another word for collapse.  Yet to this author’s knowledge, no manufacturer does such testing during the design process, and no manufacturer has ever quantified during the design of a particular seat exactly how much “yield” of the seat structure should be required for safety.

In addition, all of the front seats in standard cab pick-ups and the rear seats in most sedans cannot yield or collapse – due to structures behind the seat that prevent them from doing so.  If collapsing seats are necessary for safety, then by definition, all of the front seats of standard cab pick-ups and the rear seats in most sedans are unsafe or “unreasonably dangerous” because they are designed into the vehicle so as to preclude collapse.  To the author’s knowledge, no one has ever alleged that to be true, nor is it.

In addition, manufacturers have already developed, and marketed and continue to market very strong front seats that do not collapse during severe rear collisions.  These include the front seat for Chrysler’s Sebring convertible, and other belt-integrated seats used in vehicles by General Motors.

Sone defense experts argue however that these seats (with seatbelts installed within the seats rather than attached to the vehicle) have inherent safety risks.  According to them, for example, if the vehicle is hit in an “off-set collision” (i.e. at an angle near the rear corner or side) the seat will twist because the side of the seat with the installed seatbelt is stronger than its other side.  The twisting, so the argument goes, can cause people to be ejected from their seatbelts towards the center of the vehicle and be seriously injured as a result.

The counter-argument is that a solution is to simply strengthen the weak side of the seat to preclude the twisting.  At this writing, the author has yet to hear an effective response to that counter-argument.

Instead, defense experts point out that belt-integrated seats and other stronger seats have another inherent safety risk.  The argument, known as the “out-of-position” defense, goes like this: If a person is leaning over and reaching across the car at the time of the rear collision, when he/she moves rearward they will miss the full seatback and headrest and be seriously injured by “knifing” at an angle across the strong seat frame.

The counter-argument is two-fold.  First, the severity of any such injury can be mitigated with proper padding.  Secondly, one needs to look at the time duration of the risk.  How often do rear collisions happen with people stretching (out-of-position) across the vehicle, as opposed to when they are sitting normally in their seat (where the stronger seat will prevent collapse)?  Ultimately, a jury may have to decide that question.  Another question for the jury should be: Which is a greater risk needing protection - - rear collisions where people are seated normally, or rear collisions where they are leaning or stretching out-of-position across the vehicle?

VI. Evidence of the Collapsing Seat

Part of prosecuting the case, of course, is proving that the defect manifested itself in your particular collision.  Fortunately, the collapsing seat can leave physical evidence in the vehicle that includes a broken seatback, a seatback permanently and drastically deformed rearward, or a seatbelt still buckled with no one in it.  Other evidence can be found in and around the seat’s recliner mechanism (located at the pivot point of the seatback and seat cushion), including torn sheet metal near the recliners, broken recliner bolts, and/or sheared teeth within the recliner mechanism.

In addition, other evidence can include severely bent seat frames, headrests pulled upward and bent rearward from ejected bodies, seat tracks peeled apart or abnormally separated, abrasions showing rearward displacement of the seatbelt buckles, and deformation or abrasions on the front seatback, seat cushion and/or head restraint showing occupant movement across those surfaces.  Also look for deformation and/or abrasions on the rear seat, around rear windows, and on rear decks.

Additionally, one should look for drag marks on the material headliner of the vehicle from hands, feet and other body parts.  Often you can also find drag marks on the lower dashboard, center console and steering wheel from the feet of the ejected front occupant.  Sometimes, there will even be abrasion marks on the seatbelt webbing itself caused by the occupant being ejected rearward as the seat fails.

VIII. Conclusion

Real people, including babies and children in the rear seats, continue to be killed, paralyzed or permanently brain-damaged each year because of dangerously weak automotive seats.  Adequate safety standards need to be established by the government for rear-collision safety.  Yet none exist, despite the fact that technology has been in place for over fifty (50) years to stop the carnage.  Unfortunately, with the exception of product-liability lawsuits, little to nothing is being done at present to put an end to it.  That needs to change.


[i].          The author wants to acknowledge gratefully the technical input and advice of seat-design expert Kenneth Saczalski, Ph.D., and seat-testing expert Mark Pozzi that greatly assisted in the preparation of this article.

[ii].          See 49 CFR 571.210 (1971) / Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standard (FMVSS) 210.

[iii].         NHTSA and the automotive industry in essence have no occupant protection standards for rear impacts similar to Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards (FMVSS) 210 for frontal collisions.  Some were proposed in the early 1970s but the rulemaking was defeated after industry lobbying.  Several manufacturers, however, patented and produced stronger, safer belt-integrated seats in case those proposed standards or others ever become law.

[iv].         See 49 CFR 571.207 (2008) / Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standard (FMVSS) 207.

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