Graham Esdale from our firm, working with Halron Tatum and Tatum Turner, lawyers from Chatom, Alabama, recently settled a case against Mazda and Ford Motor Company involving a 2002 Ford Escape, which is a sport utility vehicle. The discovery phase of this case revealed that Mazda was responsible for the design and testing of the restraint system and roof structure of the Ford Escape and its sister vehicle, the Mazda Tribute.
This accident occurred on June 25, 2006 in Washington County, Alabama, when Bonnie Blackwell swerved to avoid an object in the road. While attempting to regain control of the vehicle, it side-swiped a tree, began to slide sideways and rolled over one and one-half times. Despite being properly belted, Ms. Blackwell was rendered a quadriplegic in this accident.
Expert testimony established that Ms. Blackwell received her injury as a result of excessive slack being introduced into the restraint system combined with the A-pillar and roof header crushing in on her. It was also established by experts that this injury could have been prevented by either limiting excessive slack in the restraint system, thereby reducing occupant excursion, or by strengthening the roof, which would limit roof intrusion.
Mazda and Ford defended this case just like they have defended other roof crush cases over the last 20 years. They always claim that roofs stronger than the minimum federal standard do not provide any additional occupant protection. The companies claim roof crush is not causally related to occupant injury because belted occupants “dive” into the roof before any deformation occurs. This defense strategy has become known as the “flat earth defense.” Folks used to say that ships would fall off the edge of the earth. So now the auto manufacturers’ claims of “diving” have also been exposed as legend and myth.
Credible, trustworthy organizations such as the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS), the Center for Auto Safety, Monash University, and Public Citizen, among many others, began researching and investigating the “diving” theory. They have all now concluded, with no exceptions, that roof crush is causally related to occupant injury and that stronger roofs will save lives. Even NHTSA now agrees with them. This is best evidenced by the fact that NHTSA has now doubled the current roof strength requirement for all passenger cars and light trucks. The new standard will be phased in starting in September 2012.
The shameful aspect of this is that Bonnie Blackwell, along with countless other catastrophically injured and killed individuals, was exposed to defective roof designs by the auto industry. Instead of building stronger roofs, a handful of manufacturers, the “flat-earthers,” preferred to perpetuate fraud in courtrooms across this country. It’s a sad commentary on our times that on many occasions they got away with it. The amount of the settlement in this case is confidential. But Graham and the Turner firm did a very good job for a woman who badly needed their help.
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