Rear-Ended? How Seatback Failures Make Injuries Worse

Defective Auto Part Attorney Explains Liability in Rear-End Collisions

Video Transcript:

Stewart Eisenberg:

Seatback standards today, as I said, are the same as in the 1960s; and even our garden variety lawn chair will pass the seatback standard test.

Rob Rosenthal:

Are you at risk for serious injury or maybe even death because of the seats in your car? Well, that's what we're going to find out today because we're going to ask the lawyer.

Hi again, everybody, I'm Rob Rosenthal with askthelawyers.com, and my guest is Philadelphia attorney Stewart Eisenberg. I want to remind you, if you have questions about your specific situation that you'd like to ask a lawyer, go to askthelawyers.com and click the button at the top of the page that says “Ask a Lawyer” and you can ask away right there.

Stewart, it’s good to see you again as always. Thank you for making some time to answer our questions.

Stewart Eisenberg:

Thank you for having me.

Rob Rosenthal:

Now, you and I have actually kind of touched on this topic before, but now it's starting to get a little more national coverage. Fill us in on what's going on. I know that CBS News has done an investigative report. What's going on there?

Stewart Eisenberg:

Well, seatbacks have been a problem in cars for a long time, but even more so today, because there's so many safety features in a car that you would expect your seat to hold up in a crash. Now, we have a seat belt that protects you, and an airbag that protects you, but those protect you in head-on crashes when you hit somebody or you're being hit in the front. When you're hit in the rear, the only thing that protects you and your safety is your seatback, so that you do not go backwards, so that you do not fly around, and the seatback is a very important safety feature in a rear-end collision. So that's why we're talking more about it today; and the problem is with cars even manufactured today in 2021, have the same standard of seatback strength that they did in the 1960s. And that is really, really dangerous.

Rob Rosenthal:

So let's talk about what's happening. What's going wrong with the seatbacks?

Stewart Eisenberg:

Well, what happens when you're in a rear-end collision, your seatback holds you up. If it's not strong enough, it will bend, it will break, and it will allow you to ram rearwards in the crash so that your head goes into the back seat effectively. And there are two problems with that, two potential, very, very serious issues that can arise. One is if there's a child in the back, right behind you. And that child, even though the child is in a safety seat or a car seat, the child gets hit by your head, by your body, and by the weight of whatever is going rearward. That is a very, very dangerous problem, and we've seen children who are killed and brain damaged as a result of those seatbacks that do not hold the driver or even the passenger, if there's a child behind either one of them. The second problem and the second risk that it's very, very important to understand is that the person in the seat, if there's no one in the back, and even if there is anyone in the back, you are at very serious risk for a spinal cord injury or a head injury. When your head rams rearward and hits the back seat or hits an object in the back, we've seen lots of people who have suffered catastrophic injuries and have been paralyzed and even killed as a result of these crashes.

Rob Rosenthal:

And it would seem to me that airbags and seat belts are not much benefit if your seatback has failed.

Stewart Eisenberg:

Right. The airbag and the seat belt do not protect you at all in a rear-end collision. They're not designed to. They're not made to protect you from going backwards. That's why people have whiplash sometimes in rear-end collisions; you hit your head on the headrest and on the top of the seat, but if your seat collapses you are in very serious danger.

To give you an example, Rob, the seatback standards today, as I said, are the same as in the 1960s; and even our garden variety lawn chair will pass the seatback standard test. So, do you want a lawn chair in your car to protect you from a crash and from what happens in a crash where someone rear-ends you at 20, 30, 40 miles an hour? I don't think so.

Rob Rosenthal:

So it's not a matter of the manufacturers not meeting the standard, it’s that the standard is way too low, correct?

Stewart Eisenberg:

Correct. The standard is tremendously low. Any manufacturer can comply with that standard, but that standard has very little relevance to today's world, very little relevance to what is safe in cars, and there are manufacturers who exceed the standard and they need to exceed the standard, but there are many cars that don't meet the standard well enough to protect you from the seat breaking, the metal parts break, the metal parts collapse; it's called a recliner that holds the seat together. A lot of seats recline in cars, and the seat is held together by a recliner, either a single recliner or a double recliner, but it doesn't really matter whether it's single or double, what matters is the strength of the steel, the strength of the various component parts that make up the strength of that seat.

Rob Rosenthal:

Let me back up a little bit here. It would seem to me that someone could be injured in a car accident, a rear-end collision, and it not even click to them that the seat might have been the problem. They may just say, “Well, it was a really bad collision, so that's just going to happen.” But the issue could be with the seat itself?

Stewart Eisenberg:

The seat is often the problem, and when people are seriously injured in a crash, they need to look for the integrity of that seat. A lot of times the police will come to the scene and adjust the seat to get the person out of the vehicle. So sometimes you don't really don't know if the seat was a problem, and that's why you need a lawyer to look into the accident, to examine the car, to examine the seat, to examine the seat belts, and all of the parts that were involved in the accident to determine whether your seat held up well or did not. And that's what we do. We go to the scene or we go to where the car is stored, and we make sure that everything is proper in protecting people in accidents, and if they're not, then we bring lawsuits against the manufacturer of the car and the manufacturer of the seat as well.

Rob Rosenthal:

Wouldn't manufacturers of the car say to somebody when there's a litigation, “We met the standard. We met the standard that the United States government says we have to meet.” Does that make things more difficult?

Stewart Eisenberg:

It makes things more difficult, but in this instance when the standard is so low and when the standard has not been changed for so many years, we can get around the defense that the manufacturer often brings up, which is that they complied with government standards, so the government didn't require us to do anything. Well, the government didn't require you to put in anything more than a lawn chair, why did you do that? Why did you make it a little bit stronger but not strong enough? And you often find that cost is the reason that they don't manufacture the seats the way they should be manufactured. And a lot of times the seat is made by someone else, not the manufacturer of the car, like Ford, or GM, or Chrysler, but there are other component part manufacturers, and the seat is a component part of the car. So you have to make sure you have everyone that is responsible for making this seat and making sure that it's a strong seat and will hold up in a rear-end collision.

Rob Rosenthal:

Could it ultimately be that with enough of this type of litigation the standards could get raised? That somebody could say maybe we need to increase our standards?

Stewart Eisenberg:

Well, that's actually what some of our engineers have been doing over the years, and where the 60 Minutes piece came from was that one of our experts, our expert engineer, went to the government and proposed that they increase their standard, and presented the evidence and presented his testing, and showed them what a safe set is and what an unsafe seat was. So we're trying to do that; we're trying to make the government aware; we're trying to make the public aware, but it just hasn't happened yet. There are some times when it does happen. There's a new roof crush standard where the roofs are much stronger than they used to be, so hopefully seats will follow that scenario and become stronger, or at least required to become stronger. But for now we have to examine each one as it comes to us for investigation.

Rob Rosenthal:

Stewart, lots of great information. Very helpful as always. Thank you for taking some time to answer questions.

Stewart Eisenberg:

Thank you, Rob. It was a pleasure.

Rob Rosenthal:

That's going to do it for this episode of Ask the Lawyer. My guest has been Philadelphia attorney Stewart Eisenberg. Remember, if you have questions about your specific situation, just go to askthelawyers.com and click on the button at the top that says “Ask a Lawyer”. Thanks for watching. I'm Rob Rosenthal with AskTheLawyers™.

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