Paula Lawlor, a former legal assistant, who now works as an independent contractor to lawyers who represent victims of automobile rollovers, has received the Consumer Advocate of the Year award from the Consumer Attorneys of San Diego. The award was made at the Annual Awards & Installation Dinner on January 29, 2009. Paula is the founder of the non-profit People Safe in Rollovers. The following is a tribute to Paula.
For the past 10 years Paula, who sees herself as a “social entrepreneur” – one who believes that “to get things done and change society, you must be willing to go outside the normal channels” – has been on a mission to fight for a stronger roof strength standard and to inform the motoring public about the devastating effects of “roof crush” while alerting consumers about the ramifications of the proposed and grossly inadequate Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standard, FMVSS 216. Due to the efforts of Paula and Kevin Moody, a father from Oklahoma who lost his son Tyler to injuries sustained from “roof crush” in a rollover 6 years ago, and U.S. Senator Tom Coburn, there was a June 4, 2008 Senate Oversight Hearing on Vehicle Roof Strength in Washington, D.C.
Despite the fact that every year in the U.S. 10,000 die in auto rollovers and 24,000 are catastrophically injured, the roof strength standard has not changed in thirty-six years. As we have mentioned in prior issues, the deadline for a new roof strength standard has been repeatedly postponed. Thus far, however, the July 1, 2008 deadline imposed on the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration still hasn’t been met. Both Republican and Democrat Senators alike have objected to the new weak standard proposed by NHTSA and the insertion of a preemption clause that would have robbed litigants of their constitutional right to sue and by preempting all common law liability for manufacturers. Several deadlines have literally been ignored by NHTSA. A new deadline was set for October 1, 2008 and it was missed. A second deadline was set for December 15, 2008 and it too was missed. The third deadline for the new roof strength standard is now April 30, 2009 and I will be shocked if it will be met.
It was while working on a case that went to trial against General Motors in 2000, which resulted in a $25.7 million verdict for a rollover and roof crush victim, that Paula realized that GM was not only aware that its roofs would not hold up in a rollover, but that the company actually wrote the woefully inadequate standard to ensure that its own vehicles would pass the test. Paula wanted the public to know what she had learned and what juries were beginning to hear. American auto manufacturers are fully aware that there is no occupant survival space built into many of their vehicles in the event of a rollover and that their roofs are too weak. The problem was that the documents Paula unearthed were protected and went back into protective status after trial and couldn’t be given to the news media or others to inform the public.
So Paula changed course and began urging lawyers to help her get documents free of their protective claim. She asked Dana Taunton, a lawyer in our firm, to get the judge to declassify the videos and test reports of the early GM drop tests from the late 1960s. Dana walked out of court with a judge’s favorable order in her hands. The visual evidence of the early GM drop tests provided proof that the carmaker knew its roofs would not hold up when subjected to forces in a rollover. Yet these same vehicles passed the government’s static strength test FMVSS 216. Then in 2006, Paula working with Dallas lawyer Todd Tracy, gathered the “roof crush” documents that Paula had worked to declassify and wrote Deadly By Design (which is linked to www.PeopleSafeInRollovers.org).
For Paula, it’s been a battle every step of the way with setbacks, roadblocks, threats and intimidation from auto manufacturers and others opposed to her mission to change the standard for roof strength and save thousands of lives annually. NHTSA’s proposed rule, which now appears to have been categorically rejected, would only save 13-44 of the 10,000 people that die annually in rollover related accidents. “This,” says Paula, begs the question, “Who is protecting the people?”
Our firm extends our heartfelt congratulations to Paula. She is certainly deserving of this award and is to be commended for her dedication and hard work. We are very proud of her efforts in the fight for stronger roofs on vehicles. We are grateful that our firm played a part in declassifying key documents that helped Paula in her pursuit to convince lawmakers that lives could be saved with tougher regulations.
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