What Do I Do If My Seatback Failed and Injured Me?

Natalie KirbyAugust 18, 2022 6 minutes

I previously wrote about the dangers of seatback failure and how safety experts believe the current design standards are too lax and severely outdated. Now the pressing question for some people is, "What are my options if I was seriously injured or lost a loved one due to seatback failure?"

Manufacturers Have a Duty to Make Seatbacks that Don't Fail

When it comes to product design, a manufacturer has a duty to design reasonably safe products.This obligation extends to both the intended and reasonably foreseeable uses of the product.

It is foreseeable that a vehicle will be in a crash, and crash science is not a mystery, so automakers must design vehicles to withstand these foreseeable crashes. We are not asking automakers to build indestructible cars. We are asking them to produce vehicles that protect their occupants during any crash that does not reach the threshold for serious human injury or death.

What is that threshold exactly? The answer is actually fairly straightforward. If someone could not possibly survive a crash using readily available safety technology, then vehicle manufacturers are not liable. 

After many years of research by both government and private sector organizations, we have a clear understanding of what needs to happen to keep a crash from turning deadly:

  1. The "survival cell" (where occupants sit) of the vehicle needs to retain its shape entirely.
  2. Seatbelts, airbags, windows, and doors need to keep the car's occupants in an ideal position throughout the accident.
    • The survival cell's integrity is irrelevant if occupants inside of that zone can bounce around and hit hard objects, and/or if the occupants can be fully or partially ejected from the vehicle.
  3. Direct impact energy away from occupants.
  4. Protect the fuel cell to avoid fires.

If a crash shouldn't result in serious injury or death but does, that is a pretty clear sign that the vehicle did not perform as it was supposed to. Of course, we can't achieve any of these goals if the seat that the passenger sits in fails.

Automakers do not have to create seatbacks that withstand drops from space, or anything crazy, but vehicle safety advocates argue that too many low-speed impacts result in a seatback failure, and that makes current seatbacks unreasonably dangerous.

What Are My Options if I Suspect a Seatback Failure Caused My Injuries?

The problem with injuries or deaths sustained in seatback failure crashes is that investigators assume that the forces involved in the crash were sufficient to break any seat, even a well-designed one. This means that in all but the most obvious cases, they rarely consider that a seat should not have failed.

If authorities don't investigate this possibility, then there are likely crashes out there where the blame fell to another driver or the victim, instead of the manufacturer who made the defective seat. How big of a problem is seatback failure? We don't know for sure, but there are very few seats on the market that could pass even a modest stress test.

So if the government doesn't require a decent stress test for seatbacks, and authorities aren't even considering the problem in crash investigations, what is the average person to make of this? I spoke with award-winning attorney Michael Grossman and found what he had to say eye-opening.

According to Mr. Grossman, most of the seatback failure cases he's seen over the years begin with a victim who feels that they didn't receive a good explanation for why they were injured in a crash. For instance, if you're rear-ended at a relatively low speed, and your seat fails, most investigators will still pin the blame for any injuries you sustain on one of the drivers.

Sadly, most people accept this explanation, but others pick up the phone and call an attorney, like Michael Grossman, to get their assessment of the situation. This assessment includes looking at a victim's injuries, determining whether or not it's appropriate to have the vehicle inspected by a seatback failure expert, and ultimately, whether or not to pursue legal action against the manufacturer.

What Compensation Is Available to Victims of Seatback Failure?

Sadly, most Texans do not carry enough insurance to cover the costs associated with a serious injury or death due to a seatback failure. Not only are victims often out of work, behind on bills, and in dire financial straits, as a result of these incidents, but most importantly, many don't see a way out.

Holding an automobile manufacturer accountable for the damage their bad product caused is not only just, but it allows victims the chance to recover all of their losses.

Some of the damages available for recovery in the state of Texas include:

  • Medical expenses
  • Loss of earning capacity
  • Physical impairment
  • Physical pain
  • Mental anguish
  • If the injury was fatal, there are additional wrongful death and survival damages available

However, recovering these damages is not a simple matter of taking receipts to a judge. It is necessary to prove your losses, and you will unfortunately also have to disprove any arguments by the defendant that they are not to blame. An experienced personal injury attorney will know how to assist you and can explain the types of documentation and evidence you need in order to be successful.

How Long Do I Have to Pursue a Defective Seatback Claim?

In any type of lawsuit, one must state a cause of action. A cause of action is a court-recognized right to sue. Every cause of action has an accompanying deadline by which the case must be pursued, or the right to sue simply goes away. We call this deadline a statute of limitations.

In Texas, there is a two-year statute of limitations for personal injury and wrongful death cases caused by defective products.

However, that's not the only deadline you need to be concerned about. In addition to the statute of limitations, there also applies a statute of repose. A statute of repose is similar to a statute of limitations, yet different. Whereas a statute of limitations is the window of opportunity in which one case sue (two years from the date of injury or death), the statute of repose is the period of time (after the date the product was initially sold) that a company can be liable for injuries caused by their products.

In Texas, there is a 15-year statute of repose.

An example will help clarify how the statute of limitations and the statute of repose work together. Bob drives a 2001 Honda Accord. One day, while driving to work, the airbag in Bob's Accord randomly ignites, striking Bob in the face, and causing an accident. Bob suffers serious injuries and spends a year in the hospital recovering. Clearly, Bob's Honda was defective, but the question here is whether he can sue. It has been one year since the date of his injuries, so Bob is well within the two-year statute of limitations. As such, he still has standing to sue. However, Bob's car is a 2001 model, which means that, as of the time of writing of this article, Bob's car is 21 years old. Since the statute of repose in Texas says that a manufacturer can only be liable for a defective product for 15 years after the product was initially sold, Honda can no longer be held liable, even though the car is clearly defective. So, the final score is that Bob cannot sue.

In summary, victims have two years from the date they were injured to bring a claim, so long as the vehicle is not more than 15 years old.

... And All of that Assumes We Have Evidence

There is another deadline that arises simply due to practicality. If you sue an automaker for a defective seatback that failed during a crash, the evidence is the seat. Unfortunately, it is common after a crash that a vehicle is no longer in the victim's possession. Insurance agencies typically send the vehicle to a collision center or a body shop, and then they will pay for the repairs of a vehicle or pay the victim the value of the vehicle if totaled. This means an examination for the potential defect needs to happen before you lose possession of the vehicle.

If Victims Don't Hold Manufacturers Accountable, It's Doubtful Anyone Will

No one wants to be in a lawsuit, but if victims pursue their liability claims, they can influence automotive designs to prioritize occupant safety. But why can't we rely on the federal crash safety standards?

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) passed its only seatback standard in 1971, only a few months after its establishment. That means the current federal standard for seatbacks is based on technology that is half a century old, and safety advocates have been pushing for updated seatback regulations that whole time. Government processes and regulations are notoriously slow changing, and often for good reason, but that doesn't help you now.

What can victims of seatback failure do, right now? Well, there are two options, and one seems much better than the other.

First, we can wait. We can stick out another 50 years to see if the federal government updates seatback regulations, and we can stick out another 50 years to see if the automotive industry changes its standard for seatbacks on its own. I don't know about you, but I do not feel that this course of action is helpful to anyone other than automakers who prioritize the status quo over producing quality products.

The other option is for victims of seatback failure to exercise the rights afforded to them under the law and hold automakers accountable for their injuries. It is said that "money talks," and this couldn't be more true than when dealing with automakers.

Automakers will learn that it is cheaper and easier to simply prevent these easily preventable injuries than pay court fees, and this in turn can literally save lives. Better and safer designed vehicles will enter the market and others will not have to endure the same pain.

If you have any questions about seatback failure or wish to pursue a claim, Grossman Law Offices would love to speak with you at (855) 971-2017. We answer the phones anytime, day or night.