What is the hidden safety defect endangering our children?
For many years, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) has advised the public to keep children in the back seat of the car to protect them in the event of an accident. Tragically, for the family of Jesse Rivera, Jr. of Texas, following this advice resulted in severe injuries that changed the course of his life. When his family's Audi sedan was rear-ended, Jesse was sitting in the back seat, behind his father. Upon impact, the driver's seat broke, launching Jesse, Sr. headfirst into his son.
As a result, 7-year-old Jesse, Jr., although he survived the horrific trauma, he was left with permanent brain damage, partial paralysis and the loss of some of his eyesight. His younger brother Patrick, who was sitting behind the unoccupied front seat, remained uninjured. Jesse Jr., now 11-years-old, will need care for the rest of his life. The devastated family sued.
When CBS News investigated the circumstances of the crash, the team found crash test videos demonstrating that when these cars are hit from behind, the front driver and passenger seats of many vehicles can collapse backwards, launching the occupants into the backseat area. In a deposition for the case, an Audi engineer explained that the car was designed so someone in the backseat would "support the front seat with his knees," an obvious impossibility for a young child.
Audi's Inadequate Defense
Audi's attorney argued that the seats in question were designed to absorb the impact of a collision.
Ironically, the lawyer actually played a crash test video of the seats collapsing for the jury while questioning the EMT who responded to the accident scene. The EMT asked, "So you are saying the seat is supposed to do that?" Unbelievably, the attorney replied, "Yes, absolutely. Proudly so. It's absorbing energy."
Audi's attorney also reminded the jury that there were factors having nothing to do with the car's design that exacerbated the situation, including that neither the driver nor the injured boy were wearing seatbelts and that the boy was not seated in a booster seat.
The Alarming Statistics
In reviewing cases of seatback failure, CBS News has shown that, while drivers can also suffer severe injury from rear-end impact, children in the backseat in such collisions are suffering the most catastrophic injuries, including death. Experts in the field of auto safety are demanding that action be taken to eliminate what they refer to as a "serious safety defect." The CBS News investigation has identified more than 100 people nationally who were severely injured or killed in apparent seatback failures since 1989 -- the majority of whom were children. Seventeen have died in the past 15 years alone.
Particularly distressing is the fact that, after the court case in which a Texas jury verdict awarded the Rivera family more than $124.5 million, auto companies have admitted that the defect in question would cost "only a couple of dollars" to repair.
The jury ultimately ruled in favor of the Rivera family, declaring that Jesse, Jr.'s permanently disabling injuries resulted from Audi's "gross negligence." They did, however, assign some responsibility to the driver of the car that rear-ended the Rivera vehicle (25 percent) and some to Jesse Rivera, Sr. (20 percent) since the latter was not wearing a seatbelt and did not have his son properly protected in a booster seat.
The Continuing Problem
It is extremely disturbing to note that the Audi seats in question met or exceeded the federal standard for strength. Nearly every major American, Japanese and Korean automaker has seen similar cases recently. Internal documents show carmakers and the NHTSA have known about the potential for seatback collapses for decades. NHTSA insists it has looked into the issue, but says it is "very challenging" to upgrade the standard because these accidents are "rare."