Situational Science

A high-profile seat-back failure case that delivered a $43 million plaintiffs’ verdict this summer also exposed major flaws in the work of a renowned researcher, whose studies are often cited by manufacturers in arguing against stronger vehicle seats.

Dr. David C. Viano, a former General Motors scientist, now a private engineering consultant, was retained by seat designer and manufacturer Johnson Controls to testify that the 2000 Dodge Neon seat at issue in Heco v. Johnson Controls was not defective, based, in part, on statistical analyses performed by Viano and his colleague at ProBiomechanicals LLC, Chantal Parenteau, using the National Automotive Sampling System-Crashworthiness Data System (NASS-CDS).

A prolific researcher, Viano has reversed his positions on seat designs over the course of his career, from a proponent of stronger seat backs, and seat integrated belts as a GM Principal Scientist, to a defender of weak seat backs as an expert witness defending auto companies against litigation claims. As a high-profile figure in this area of automotive design, Viano’s current views have been accorded a weight that, his critics charge, is not supported by the quality of his research. 

Viano declined to respond to these criticisms.

The Heco case emanated from an August 4, 2007 rear-impact crash. Dezmila Heco was stopped at a light in Essex, Vermont when she was rear-ended. Although Heco was wearing her seat belt, the 2000 Dodge Neon’s restraint system failed when the seat back collapsed. The force of the crash threw Heco into the rear of the occupant compartment, where she broke her neck, leaving her a quadriplegic. Over the course of the two-week trial this summer, a Chittenden County, Vermont jury found that the seat in Dodge Neon, designed and manufactured by Johnson Controls of Milwaukee, Wisconsin, was defective and the cause of her severe injuries. It awarded Heco and her sons more than $43 million.

Toyota Unintended Acceleration and the Big Bowl of “Spaghetti” Code

Last month, Toyota hastily settled an Unintended Acceleration lawsuit – hours after an Oklahoma jury determined that the automaker acted with “reckless disregard,” and delivered a $3 million verdict to the plaintiffs – but before the jury could determine punitive damages.

What did the jury hear that constituted such a gross neglect of Toyota’s due care obligations? The testimony of two plaintiff’s experts in software design and the design process gives some eye-popping clues. After reviewing Toyota’s software engineering process and the source code for the 2005 Toyota Camry, both concluded that the system was defective and dangerous, riddled with bugs and gaps in its failsafes that led to the root cause of the crash.

Safety Research & Strategies Sues U.S. DOT in (Another) FOIA Dispute

Safety Research & Strategies, an automobile and product safety research and consulting firm, today filed its fourth Freedom of Information lawsuit against the U.S. Department of Transportation, alleging that it has improperly held documents regarding Early Warning Reports.

The lawsuit emanates from two instances in which manufacturers allegedly did not report serious injury claims against them to NHTSA, as required under the Transportation Recall Enhancement Accountability and Documentation (TREAD) Act’s Early Warning Reports (EWR) provision. One crash occurred in April 2009, involving a tire tread separation which resulted in an occupant sustaining a serious closed head injury. The second crash occurred in June 2010, involving the apparent failure of Harmony Lite Rider child restraint, which caused severe injuries to two young children.

“EWR data is supposed to alert the agency investigators to defect trends,” says SRS President Sean E. Kane. “But if manufacturers don’t report complete and accurate information, the system doesn’t work.”

Harmony, which manufactured the child safety seat and Nankang, the Taiwanese tire manufacturer, and Tireco, the tire importer, were notified of these claims via civil lawsuits in August 2010 and November 2011, respectively. Neither, however, showed up in a search of the manufacturer’s quarterly reports to NHTSA.

In March, SRS informed the director of the Office of Defects Investigation Frank Borris, and NHTSA’s Senior Associate Administrator for Safety, Daniel C. Smith, of these apparent omissions. The memo requested confirmation that these claims should have been submitted to the agency via a quarterly EWR submission, and “what actions the agency plans to take.” After receiving no reply, SRS submitted, in May, a Freedom of Information Act request, seeking any documentation that NHTSA followed up with Harmony, Nankang or Tireco, as well, as the agency’s policies and procedures around EWR, and a manufacturer’s failure to submit a reportable incident.  

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