Submersion Lawsuit Highlights Escape Design Gaps

On August 19, 2011, Washington Boulevard, a Pittsburgh thoroughfare built over a stream bed filled suddenly with nine feet of water, trapping Kimberly A. Griffith and her two daughters in their Chrysler minivan. Griffith, Brenna, 12, and Mikaela, 8, drowned in the minivan, unable to open the power windows, while the outside water pressure made it impossible to open the vehicle’s doors. Mary Safill, a 72-year-old woman who was also caught up in the flash flood on Washington Street, managed to escape her car, but drowned in the torrent.

Earlier this month, the law firm of Swensen, Perer & Kontos filed a lawsuit on behalf of the victims’ families. The civil action names eight defendants, including Chrysler for failing to warn consumers about the hazards of vehicle submersion and for a failure to implement escape technology.

Motor vehicle submersions are small but significant portion of motor vehicle deaths.  The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, using the Fatal Analysis Reporting System (FARS) and the National Automotive Sampling System – Crashworthiness Data Systems (NASS-CDS) has reported that an average of 384 occupants die in motor vehicle crashes each year – not including those that occur during floods. An internal NHTSA analysis of non-flooding submersion deaths showed that most occurred as the result of a collision or rollover, that the windows were already smashed by impacts, and that most occupants were already injured before the vehicle hit the water. 

In the published version of the NHTSA research, Drowning Deaths In Motor Vehicle Traffic Accidents, author Rory Austin says the little is known about drowning deaths that occur as the result of a traffic crash. His analysis found that “63 percent of the passenger vehicle drowning fatalities involved a rollover, and 12 percent involved a collision with another motor vehicle. The most common passenger vehicle crash scenario was a single-vehicle rollover accounting for 59 percent of the fatalities. These crashes frequently involved running off the road and colliding with a fixed object prior to the rollover and immersion. In cases with known restraint use, the victim was not using any form of restraint system 52 percent of the time.”

Research by Gordon Giesbrecht and Gerren McDonald of the University of Manitoba concluded the opposite: “Many, if not most, victims die from drowning rather than from trauma.” In some industrialized nations, such as New Zealand, Canada, and the U.S. motor vehicle submersions. account for a significant proportion of all accidental drowning deaths – from 7 to 11.6 percent Giesbrecht and McDonald call motor vehicle submersions the deadliest type of single vehicle crash.

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