PROTECTING PRECIOUS CARGO:
REAR SEAT SAFETY
Raymond Paul Johnson
Michelle M. West
Raymond Paul Johnson, A Law Corporation
South Bay • Los Angeles
2121 Rosecrans Avenue, Suite 3400
El Segundo, California 90245
Even few lawyers
understand the dangers. Yet consumers face them everyday --
whenever they load children into the rear seats of their family
vehicles, such as minivans or sports utility vehicles (SUVs).
and other rear-seat passengers can be in serious danger of injury
and death. Why? Their seats (and seatbelts) may not be safely
attached to the vehicle. Yet consumers have a difficult time
knowing whether the seat is properly attached, let alone whether it
will stay that way in a collision.
The car companies owe
your clients more. They promised more by enticing them to buy
the vehicle with ads showing children safely seated in the rear.
This article explores how the rear seats in family vehicles continue
to cause tragic injuries and death.
II. THE CAUSE OF HARM
A. Rear Seat Dangers
With front airbags,
padded instrument panels, and other safety features, studies have
shown that rear seat passengers, in general, are less safe than
front seat passengers.
In fact, according to crash statistics, “[w]hen a minivan with a
third-row occupant is hit from behind, the occupant is killed half
During rollovers, rear
seat occupants are more likely to be ejected due to a lack of side
curtains and airbags in most vehicles, the absence of laminated
safety glass, and the fact that some rear seats do not offer lap and
shoulder belt combinations. Even in seats with shoulder belts,
crash tests show the shoulder portion typically falls off the shoulder during a crash due to the lack of web grabbers and pretensioners in rear seat positions.
The bottom line: Rear seat occupants are in danger.
A 2006 study by the
National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) and Society
of Automotive Engineers (SAE) showed that of restrained occupants in
model year 1991-2003 vehicles, the large majority traveling in rear
seats – sixty-four percent (64%) – were twelve (12) years old or
Clearly, family vehicle owners put their most precious cargo – their
children – in the rear seats. They rely on the occupant restraint
system in these vehicles including the seats, seatbelts and safety
glass used in rear windows to keep their children from being thrown
around inside the vehicle or ejected during a crash.
In many cases however
rear-seat seatbelts are attached to the seat rather than the body of
the vehicle. In such instances, all the seatbelts in the world will
not safely restrain a child during a crash unless the seat (to which
the seatbelt is connected) is safely attached to the vehicle
structure. In other words, the strength of the seat and its
connection to the vehicle’s floor are critical.
To better see why harm
becomes inevitable when a seat fails to stay fully attached to the
vehicle’s body, think about a child safety seat for small children.
To perform its job, the child safety seat must be properly connected
to the vehicle. Regardless of how well you buckle the child into
the safety seat, in a crash, if the seat is not fully attached to
the vehicle, the seat – baby and all – will be dangerously thrown
about inside the vehicle or possibly ejected. Much like the child
safety seat, the rear seats in family vehicles must not become
detached or partially detached from the vehicle, otherwise injury
and death result.
Based on traffic data,
automobile crashes are the number one killer of children ages 4-14.
Children though are not the only victims of defective rear seats.
In newer vehicles, rear seats have been shown to be less effective
than front seats in reducing serious to fatal injuries for adult
occupants in frontal crashes.
Weak seat backs, and inadequate crush zones for third-row seats are
part of the problem. But another sure killer is the lack of strong,
safe attachments for the removable and moveable seats in minivans
and SUVs. The main reason: People do not see nor realize the danger
that lies beneath the seats.
B. Removable Seats - Convenience, but at What Cost?
1. “Good for Cargo,” But What About Your Most Precious
Cargo - Your Children?
fascinated with removable seats in their SUVs and minivans. Sure –
we want as many options as possible. We want to fit the entire
soccer team in a vehicle, and then remove the seats to carry bikes,
coolers, luggage, golf carts, and whatever else. But one thing
consumers do not want is to swap safety for the convenience of being
able to remove a seat.
One hidden but
life-threatening danger can occur whenever consumers install a
removable seat. If they do so incorrectly, or if a carpet, strap,
or something else interferes with the latching, disaster awaits. In
a collision, the seat will move, and if the seatbelt is connected to
the seat (as in many designs), the seatbelt will be ineffective.
Worse yet, in a
rollover, the moving seat can propel the occupant, smashing him or
her into dangerous interior parts or through windows. Although the
typical consumer has little way to recognize this danger, car
manufacturers know full well how critical the safe attachment of the
seat to the vehicle is to occupant protection. As such, they have a
duty to design the danger out, or at least adequately warn
Imagine if car
companies gave you the option of safe seating for your children or
removable seating for extra luggage and other cargo? Not much of a
choice, right? But actually, consumers need not make that decision.
Car manufacturers can offer both safe and removable seating by using
strong fail-safe designs that make sense for consumers.
however, consumer advocates know too well that “the auto industry .
. . has a long history of withholding safety devices and fighting
Many manufacturers focus just on sales. And as such they provide as
many seating options and as much cargo space as possible to sell
more vehicles. This is fine, but in the end they have to do it
safely. Lives depend on it.
2. The Different Types of Removable Seats
There are various
types of removable seats, some safe, some not. Three-passenger
bench seats can be heavy, and are usually on rollers. These seats
can be removed by unlatching them from the floor attachments and
lifting them out of the vehicle.
Other designs allow
portions of bench seats to be removed. For example, there can be a
split bench seat where half of the seat can be folded down or
removed. There are captain’s chairs or bucket seats that fold down
into a smaller size, and then can be lifted out of the vehicle
entirely. Regardless of the type, manufacturers have a duty to
ensure that removable seats are safe for consumer use.
Dangers lurk in the
floor attachments that connect the seat to the vehicle. For example
if the floor attachments are in recessed grooves, debris, toys,
marbles and other small objects can collect within the grooves.
This can interfere with the latch, making it difficult or impossible
to safely reinstall the seat. Safer alternative designs exist that
can eliminate this danger, including – most importantly – electronic
systems that warn of partial or incomplete latching.
3. Discovery in Defective Rear-Seat Cases
If your client falls
victim to these defective seats, begin by getting all the related
customer complaints. If consumers report difficulty removing and
installing these seats, latching problems follow. Sometimes
consumers cannot even understand how the seats should be properly
removed and/or installed; sometimes the seats themselves are too
heavy to allow safe installation; and sometimes the mechanisms that
allow attachment and/or detachment of the seat are confusing or
situation, consumer complaints can alert you about the nature of
poor designs, and needed warnings or instructions related to the
removable seats. In addition, request all design review memoranda
and meetings minutes related to the complaints, the design drawings
for the seats, and any reasonable alternative designs considered by
Also find out about
any “bench-marking” or comparisons the manufacturer did of
competitor designs to see what alternatives existed in the
marketplace. This provides insight into better designs offered by
others, and perhaps why the manufacturer chose not to use a better
design. Also be sure to get all consumer surveys and/or “customer
service” call-line information related to the seats.
In addition, when
these seats are removed from the vehicle, they are susceptible to
damage during removal, storage and re-installation. Manufacturers
must take these foreseeable events into consideration and design
their seats, including the attachments, latches and other related
parts to be durable, long-lasting and strong enough to withstand
repeated removal and installation.
Also seek “other
similar incidents” (OSIs) through discovery. Find out how many
consumer complaints and prior lawsuits with similar issues exist to
bolster your case and show that the manufacturer knew about the
dangers and defects at issue.
Conduct a NHTSA search
for customer comments, technical service bulletins and recalls
related to the seats and seat failures. Issues regarding removable
seats can include the seat falling forward, moving backwards, or
being thrown to the ceiling during rollovers. You should try to
follow-up by contacting the individuals who communicated the
problems to NHTSA. These problems could prove to be powerful OSIs
for your seat case.
For example, in a
recent rear-seat case prosecuted by the authors, several NHTSA
complaints surfaced regarding children injured when the removable
rear seats in minivans detached from the latches and fell forward
during minor fender benders. This failure mode is
particularly dangerous in that a major source of head injuries to
children comes from impacts with the vehicle’s interior.
C. Jump Seats
Some SUV manufactures
offer “jump” seats. These are typically smaller folding seats that
operate on a hinge type device and stay attached to the vehicle.
They are moveable seats, as opposed to removable ones. Jump seats
operate by latching down to the vehicle’s floor while remaining
hinged at the side of the vehicle. They can fold up and out of the
way to provide cargo space, or connect to the vehicle’s floor with
straps, hooks or other devices in the down position for seating.
To cover the floor
attachments, manufacturers sometimes provide cargo mats. These
mats, and related straps, tabs and cables can cause latching
malfunctions. If there is entanglement, the jump seat will not fully
connect to the floor. In that case, the seat’s connection to the
side of the vehicle (often near rear and side windows) can act as a
catapult propelling its occupant outside the window in collisions,
especially rollovers. This horrific result can and will shoot a
small child through the window while still belted.
An example of a recall
involving jump seats occurred with the 1998 Mitsubishi Montero. In
a related case handled by the authors, evidence existed that the
vehicle’s cargo mat had interfered with the attachment of the jump
seat to the vehicle’s floor. During a rollover, the seat dislodged
and catapulted a ten (10)-year-old girl – still seatbelted – out the
side rear window. Without a safe seat attachment to the floor of
the vehicle, the child's seatbelt proved worthless, and death
D. Fold-Into-the-Floor Designs
Seats that fold into
the floor can be stronger, safer alternatives to removable seats and
movable jump seats. They automatically latch upon extension. This
allows additional seating, with the option of folding the seats into
the floor for extra cargo room.
These seats typically
stay permanently connected to the vehicle along one portion of the
seat bottom. As such, they are potentially safer in a collision or
rollover than fully removable seats. Their overall safety however
depends greatly on the strength and dependability of the front and
rear connections to the vehicle.
For example, a search
of consumer complaints on NHTSA’s database regarding one
fold-into-the-floor design in a 2005 minivan shows that these seats
can fling forward or backward in certain situations with passengers
The bottom line is: When any seat becomes disengaged or partially
disengaged from the vehicle’s floor, devastating injuries or death
can and will result.
III. THE APPLICABLE
MINIMUM FEDERAL STANDARDS
A. FMVSS 207 - An Outdated Seat Safety Standard In Need of
Federal standards are
minimum standards. Although many consumers put trust in the
government and manufacturers to ensure safe cars, the reality is
that not enough is being done, and both the manufacturers and
government personnel know it. In fact, Federal Motor Vehicle Safety
Standard (FMVSS) 207 for seats has not been changed in more than 30
years, despite technology advancements and petitions by engineers to
increase the requirements for public safety
FMVSS 207 went into
effect in 1968 for passenger cars and was made applicable to
multi-purpose vehicles, buses and trucks in 1972 It provides minimal requirements
for the strength of the interface between a seat
and vehicle structure, and the strength of the seat itself.
But Federal Motor
Vehicle Safety Standard No. 207 has been widely criticized for
providing inadequate seat strength. For example, "[a]dvances in
technology have made possible significant improvement in the ability
of the car seat to add appreciable crash victim occupant protection,
especially with the advent of integrated seat concepts.”[xii]
And yet, FMVSS 207 stays the same.
pointed out that the government standards for seats is so minimal
that even a lawn chair could pass them.[xiii]
In fact, a Director of Safety Research at Ford Motor Company once
provided an example of what could overwhelm a seat that had passed
the standard -- a hefty man squirming in his seat to reach a wallet
in his rear pocket could cause seat failure.[xiv]
B. FMVSS 210 - Seatbelt Safety and its Relationship to
For almost forty (40)
years, seatbelts have been required in passenger cars.[xv]
Virtually every state has enacted laws requiring all occupants to
wear those seatbelts. As such, any increase in the safety
performance of seatbelts will save lives and prevent injury.
Knowing this, several
years ago, NHTSA along with the private sector conducted a study to
improve occupant safety in vehicle crashes. The study found that an
integrated structural seat, which has all the belt anchorages on the
seat itself as opposed to the vehicle’s body structure, improved
belt fit and safety for all occupants.[xvi]
This finding promises reduced injuries and fewer deaths. But the
fact that the seatbelt attaches to the seat, rather than the
vehicle's structure, makes the need for strong, safe and secure
seats all the more critical, especially with removable or moveable
FMVSS 210 provides the
minimum requirements for seatbelt performance. But when seatbelts
are attached to seats and those seats fail to stay fully attached to
the vehicle structure, even the minimal requirements of FMVSS 210
cannot be satisfied. At Paragraph S3, FMVSS 210 defines seatbelt
anchorage as “any component, other than the webbing or straps,
involved in transferring seatbelt loads to the vehicle structure,
including, but not limited to, the attachment hardware, seat frames,
seat pedestals . . . and any part of the vehicle whose failure
causes separation of the belt from the vehicle structure.”[xvii]
Obviously then if seats with integrated seatbelts become
disconnected or partially disconnected from the vehicle structure,
both FMVSS 210 and FMVSS 207 are violated
IV. THE NEED FOR ACTIVE
Since the 1970s,
manufacturers have provided active warning systems such as lights on
the dashboard, chimes, buzzers and other electronic reminders to
“buckle up.” The reason: Seatbelts save lives. Undisputed. As
such, warning systems (for front-seat passengers) exist in almost
all newer vehicles today. Yet active warning systems for rear-seat
passengers remain largely unavailable.
These active warning
systems for front-seat occupants may be credited for the fact that,
in 2006, seatbelt use in the front seats was much higher than
seatbelt use in the rear seats (81% of front seat passengers used
seatbelts compared to 65% of rear seat passengers).[xviii]
The same technology is available and needed in rear seats. Not only
to increase seatbelt usage, but to ensure that the seatbelts are
effective. And when seatbelts are connected to the rear seats, this
same technology should be used to adequately warn if removable or
moveable rear seats are not fully engaged.
In fact, a patent for
“electrification system for removable vehicle seats” was issued to
Johnson Controls Technology Company in 2002. The features of this
device included “power to removable vehicle seats” which did “not
require the operator to plug and unplug electrical connectors” and
which “automatically connected when the seat is properly installed
to the vehicle.”[xix]
This feasible design would also ensure safety by providing an
indicator to “alert the operator if the seat is not properly
installed to the vehicle.”[xx]
And it would also notify the operator if “electrification was not
present in the seat.”[xxi]
For basic safety, this or similar systems should be incorporated in
any vehicle with removable or moveable rear seats.
The reason: Occupant
restraint systems save lives and dollars. Estimates are that
seatbelts saved more than 15,632 lives in 2005.[xxii]
Furthermore, seatbelt use saves an estimated societal cost of $50
billion in yearly injury-related costs including medical care and
Conversely, occupant restraint failures result in significant
economic costs to society through needless injuries and deaths.
As a result, the time is well overdue for manufacturers to ensure
that removable and moveable rear seats (and their seatbelt systems)
are fully and safely attached through use of an active warning
system in all family vehicles.
V. THE INEFFECTIVENESS
OF PASSIVE WARNING
A. Passive Warnings Are A Last Resort
Design engineers are
professionals. They have long been held to professional standards.
As an example, in ancient Rome, whenever a new arch was erected, the
responsible engineer bore direct accountability for the work. Not
just in theory, but in practice: He stood under the arch as the huge
capstone was lowered into place.
design engineers bear similar responsibility. And professional
engineers will agree: Warnings are a last resort. If a product
exhibits a defect, the first obligation is to design out the defect
whenever possible. If unsuccessful, the next obligation is to
physically guard against the defect (e.g. with an active warning
system as previously discussed) so that it does no harm. Only if
designing out the defect or guarding against it proves impossible
is an effective passive warning about the danger appropriate.
In the case of
removable and moveable seats, the first duty then is to design out
failure modes that can result in detached or partially detached
seats which kill and injure rear-seat passengers. Because safer
alternative designs (including active warning systems) are clearly
feasible, the analysis should go no further. Passive warnings
therefore have no place in trying to remedy this particular
life-threatening problem. This is especially true because passive
warnings in the context of these rear-seat dangers are largely
ineffective as described below.
B. The Owner’s Manual
In defending actions,
manufacturers like to magnify the small print in Owner’s Manuals.
But such passive warnings -- about life-threatening dangers - - are
rarely effective. First, most Owner’s Manuals are used as reference
guides, not rigorous reading, making them inadequate for a true
warning. Second, rear seat passengers - mostly children under 12
years old – will not likely (if ever) read the Owner’s Manual to
determine whether their seats are properly attached to the vehicle’s
assuming the Owner’s Manual is read: Does it only warn about simple
annoyances or does it “bring home” the danger of serious injury and
death? To be effective, a warning about removable seats must at
least do the latter. It must: (1) clearly warn that any attached
seatbelt will be useless unless the seat is fully engaged at every
point to the body structure, and (2) clearly explain how to ensure
all attachments are secure.
C. On-Product Warnings
Rarely do car companies
use on-product warnings. Other than the federally-mandated visor
warnings, you typically will not see a warning label in the occupant
compartment of a family vehicle. Manufacturers, however, sometimes put
warnings on removable seats and/or seat latches. Why? They know that
the system is not intuitive. They also know that proper installation of
the seat is critical to safety.
But what is the value of
the on-product warning? If the warning says nothing about likely
permanent injury and death, or contains meaningless hieroglyphics, then
the label is little more than an attempted insulation from liability for
a known product defect.
If a defendant
manufacturer points to an on-product warning as a defense, ask them how
they tested it. Did they conduct meaningful consumer surveys? Did the
warning "bring home" to the consumer the life-and-death importance of
checking and double-checking that the attachments under the seat are
fully and securely made. If not, the warning is inadequate.
D. A Case of Failed Warnings
In a case the authors
recently prosecuted, warnings on the seat back of a third-row removable
seat proved to be nearly incomprehensible. In addition, because the
seat had never been removed by the current owners, no one had occasion
to read the warning. Furthermore, the warning was not visible to
passengers because it was on the back of the seat (in the trunk space).
In addition, pictograph
“warnings” on the plastic levers that secured the seat to the floor
proved to be meaningless hieroglyphics. And because the hieroglyphics
could not be seen unless you were in the trunk space, they proved
doubly-useless to warn a rear-seat passenger - - even if he somehow had
a Rosetta Stone.
As a result the occupant
of that seat, during a rollover, suffered traumatic brain injury when
his head smashed into the roof of the vehicle. There was no light,
buzzer or other active warning system to warn the owners, driver or
passengers that there was any problem with the seat. The fact that the
victim wore his seatbelt was irrelevant. The seat with its attached
seatbelt flew up, smashing the rear-seat passenger’s head into the roof.
proper design of rear seats and attached seatbelt systems is critical to
passenger safety – especially in family vehicles. Researching consumer
complaints regarding prior failures and recurring problems with these
seat systems tells the story. As a result, both FMVSS 207 and 210
should be updated as soon as possible to require safe designs and active
warning systems for removable and moveable rear seats in family
vehicles. Consumer safety and the lives of our children depend on
Frontal Crash Protection for Rear Seat Occupants; 2006 SAE
Government/Industry Meeting Rear Seat and Other Vulnerable
Occupants, SAE and NHTSA,
Healey, Dangers Lurk for Kids in Popular Third-Row Seat, USA Today,
March 1, 2002, page 1A.
. Gupta &
Menon, et al., Advanced Integrated Structural Seat, Task
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supra at 10.
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supra at 13.
supra at 1A [quoting Joan Claybrook, former Director of
NHTSA, now leader of Public Citizen, a preeminent consumer
rights and safety organization].
Kuppa, supra at 12.
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[Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standard 210].
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removable vehicle seats, Inventors Scott A. Hansen and Nels R.
Smith, Assignee Johnson Controls Technology Company. (Nov.
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