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.

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