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.

The Case of the Collapsing Seat: Weak Standards and No Oversight Led to a Fatal Defect

A renown seat safety expert has called on the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission and the Veterans Administration to institute random spot checks to ensure that mobility scooter and other powered wheelchair devices intended for the disabled meet minimum voluntary safety standards – and publicize any compliance failures to warn the public. Dr. Kenneth J. Saczalski, who has been at the forefront of seat strength issues for decades, made his call to action today at a meeting of the Society for the Advancement of Materials and Process Engineering meeting in Fort Worth, Texas.

Saczalski was retained by Miami attorney David Bianchi on behalf of the family of Carolyn Sorenson to determine what caused a scooter seat back to break in a products liability case against the U.S. distributors of the Daytona GT3 Electric Scooter. In January 2009, 64-year-old Sorenson died from positional asphyxiation in the trash room of her condominium building, when the plastic molded seat of her mobility scooter fractured and collapsed, causing her to fall backwards. Sorenson’s lower half remained belted in what was left of the seat, while her upper torso was wedged behind her against the door frame, according to police reports.

Seat Back Strength an Issue in Rear Seat Safety for Children

Researchers from the Center for Injury Research and Prevention at the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia looked at the effect of reported deformation of the front seat back rearward on the injury risk to children seated in the rear in a rear-impact crash.

Dr. Kristy Arbogast, Associate Director of Engineering for The Center for Injury Research and Prevention at CHOP, said that the study evolved from crash investigations conducted by their research team as part of several research projects. Researchers took note of several crashes in which a child seated in the rear of the vehicle suffered facial injuries in a rear-impact crash.