A Bus Crash, Litigation, and a Surprising Result: Part II

Editor’s Note: A Bus Crash, Litigation, and a Surprising Result is a complex and extraordinary story involving crash deaths, corporate malfeasance, regulatory gaps and litigation that produced significant results – not just for the plaintiffs, but for public safety. Given the length necessary to do this story justice, The Safety Record has decided to publish it in two parts.  Following is Part II

 

A Bus Crash, Litigation, and a Surprising Result: Part I

Editor’s Note: A Bus Crash, Litigation, and a Surprising Result is a complex and extraordinary story involving crash deaths, corporate malfeasance, regulatory gaps and litigation that produced significant results – not just for the plaintiffs, but for public safety. Given the length necessary to do this story justice, The Safety Record Blog has decided to publish it in two parts.

Taking on Takata

Lately, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has come in like a wrecking ball, knocking aside manufacturers’ excuses for delaying recalls and other sundry sins with multi-million dollar fines – and now aggressive legal action.

The Safety Record Blog’s Top Ten in 2014

1. GM Ignition Switches, the Big Opener for 2014

Improving the Recall System for the 21st Century

Well, here we are again. Another vehicle defect crisis, another round of Congressional hearings, this time only months after the GM and NHTSA were taken to task for allowing the ignition switch defect to spiral out of control.  This time the Senate delves into the Takata airbag inflator defect, another agency-assisted hazard that has been festering for more than a decade. Today’s Roman circus is entitled “Examining Takata Airbag Defects and the Vehicle Recall Process.” 

Markey Calls for NHTSA Transparency

Documents released Wednesday by Massachusetts Senator Edward Markey show that Wisconsin State Police came up with the same two-and-two as NHTSA’s Special Crash Investigation team during its 2007 investigation of a 2005 Chevy Cobalt crash that led to two deaths.  Too bad neither NHTSA nor GM thought they added up to four.

On October 24, 2006, Megan Ungar-Kerns, 17, was at the wheel of her 2005 Cobalt, returning from a trip to Walmart on a rural Wisconsin highway, when her vehicle suddenly drifted off the roadway at about 60 mph. The Cobalt hit a raised driveway and sailed through the air about 60 feet, before striking a telephone pole and two trees. The trio was not wearing their seatbelts and no airbags deployed. Natasha Weigel, 18, and Amy Lynn Radebaker died of their injuries. Ungar-Kerns survived with permanent injuries.

A crash investigation report issued by the Wisconsin State Police in February, noted the October 2006 GM Technical Service Bulletin about inadvertent power loss due to the ignition switch moving from the run to accessory position. They determined no other cause of the crash:

“The two front seat airbags did not deploy. It appears that the ignition switch had somehow been turned from the run position to accessory prior to the collision with the trees,” the report stated.

Markey released it and a few other documents that GM submitted to NHTSA, as part of the Death Investigation (DI), during a transportation appropriations hearing held by the Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation. DOT Secretary Anthony Foxx was the sole witness. The report didn’t add much new to the known narrative, but spotlighted legislation he has sponsored with Connecticut Senator Richard Blumenthal requiring manufacturers to submit more detailed information to NHTSA in the event of a fatal crash.

The Early Warning Reporting System Improvement Act “would require NHTSA make the information it receives from auto manufacturers publicly available in a searchable, user-friendly format so that consumers and independent safety experts can evaluate potential safety defects themselves,” according to a Markey news release.

EWR: Elective Warning Reports - When Manufacturers Don't Report Claims

Last week was a case of déjà vu all over again, to quote Mr. Yogi Berra, as NHTSA, and one of its “regulatory partners,” General Motors, faced their Congressional interlocutors, for the second performance of Safety Accountability Theater since 2000, when Congress passed the Transportation Recall Enhancement, Accountability and Documentation (TREAD) Act. Fourteen years ago, it was the Ford Explorer/Firestone tire fiasco that set all those hands a-wringing. Five years ago, it was Toyota Unintended Acceleration. Now, its GM ignition switches.

These come-to-Jesus gatherings were supposed to be obviated by the creation of the Early Warning Reporting (EWR) system. A major component of the TREAD Act, EWR requires manufacturers to submit reams of death, injury, property damage, warranty and other data to the government on a quarterly basis. It’s an honor system that depends on truthful reporters.

More than a year ago, SRS discovered three death and injury claims that had not been reported through EWR, and sought out NHTSA to confirm this apparent lapse and determine NHTSA’s policy toward manufacturers that did not submit reportable injury claims. As is usually the case when we try to help our favorite federal agency, SRS got crickets. And, as is usually the case in that circumstance, we submitted a Freedom of Information Act request to find out what they did about the information we gave them, and the agency’s policy for ensuring that reportable claims were getting into the system.

As is usually the case, NHTSA said that it had practically no information to share. As is usually the case, SRS called B.S. filed an appeal, and when that failed, took it to the U.S. District Court. And, as is usually the case, NHTSA found more responsive materials.

Last week, U.S. District Court Judge signed a Settlement Agreement between SRS and the DOT in which the government paid our legal fees. As is usually the case.

The GM Hearings – Our Take

Missouri Senator Claire McCaskill opened the second day of hearings into the General Motors ignition switch defect and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s response to the issue by forging the strongest ties yet between the revelations that GM had hidden the defect for years and the civil litigation system.

McCaskill repeatedly (along with other U.S. senators and representatives yesterday and today) acknowledged the public debt to Lance Cooper, the Marietta, Georgia lawyer who represents the family of Brooke Melton, the 29-year-old woman who died in 2010 when the ignition module of her 2005 Cobalt slipped into the accessory position as she drove along Highway 92 in Paulding County, Ga. Melton’s Cobalt skidded into another vehicle, and Melton died of her injuries in the crash. Cooper’s dogged pursuit of GM materials through the discovery process showed that GM knew about the problems for years before launching a recall that only covered some of the affected models.

The ensuing avalanche of press led to a larger recall, and a government probe, and the April hearings.

But before the crush began, Cooper formally requested that NHTSA open a Timeliness Query, based on everything he had learned. And, it’s a good thing that McCaskill gave Cooper some credit, because to this day, NHTSA has not acknowledged his letter in any way. Not a phone call, not an email, not a letter. The bubble.

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.  

Lexus RX Floor Mat Recall: NHTSA’s House of Cards Adds a New Floor

An examination of NHTSA records surrounding a June recall for floor mat interference in 2010 Lexus RX350 vehicles shows that the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration used mischaracterized data to buttress its request that Toyota recall the floor mats. Further, NHTSA ignored obvious clues that there might be an electronic root cause for the unintended acceleration complaints consumers filed with the agency.

These documents affirm the pattern that has characterized NHTSA’s Toyota Unintended Acceleration investigations – both informal and official -- since 2004:

  1. Dismiss the consumer’s description of the event, unless it conforms to the agency’s presumption of driver error or mechanical interference.
  2. Accept the explanations of the automaker or dealership of driver error or mechanical interference as completely accurate – even in the absence of any empirical evidence to support the contention.
  3. Dismiss any evidence of an electronic cause
  4. Settle for a limited, ineffective recall.
  5. Wait for another high-profile incident, consumer petition or accumulation of complaints to repeat the process

SRS has been examining the factual underpinnings of NHTSA’s actions in Toyota Unintended Acceleration since 2009. As we have in the past, we submitted a Freedom of Information Act request for all records related to Toyota’s most recent floor mat recall. We received 58 pages of documents, some of which were redacted under FOIA exemptions for confidential business information, personal identifying information and sections deemed “deliberative process.”

As we don’t know what information lies behind the redactions, we cannot assess the totality of the evidence behind NHTSA’s decision to seek a floor mat recall. However, what the unredacted portions show is there is scant evidence of a widespread floor mat interference problem and there is even less logic in the complaints NHTSA claims support its argument that a problem with the mats exists. But, there is much more evidence in the narratives of consumer complaints suggesting electronic causes of UA in 2010 Lexus RX 350.

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