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Opening Arguments Delivered In Air Bag Death Case

Apr 8, 2000 | AP

A girl's death in a minivan crash resulted from "a terribly aggressive air bag" by an automaker more concerned about sales even the cost of test dummies than proper testing of the device, an attorney argued Friday.

The family made the claim on behalf of Alison Sanders' family, which is suing DaimlerChrysler AG over the passenger air bag that fatally injured the 7-year-old girl in a low-speed, 1995 crash in Baltimore.

The company put "an untested air bag in this vehicle to enhance the sales and improve the marketing," rushing it to market knowing it could kill a child seated near it, Peters said.

The Sander's attorney also said the automaker failed to adequately warn consumers about the dangers of air bags and exacerbated "bad engineering" by making "no effort to modify the risk to children." He said the automaker declined to crash-test the air bags out of concern it would lose a $20,000 to $25,000 dummy used in it.

"The question is and the hard part is and it's always been the hard part is how do you protect someone who's not a dummy?" Peters said.

James Feeney, a DaimlerChrysler attorney, countered that the "profoundly tragic case" was of Alison not being properly buckled in to the 1995 Dodge Caravan's front seat when her father, Robert, drove through a red light and crashed into another minivan.

Feeney said Alison was sitting "literally over the air bag when it deployed," despite "optimal" government-approved warnings inside the van that doing so inherently risked serious injury.

"That has always been a given," Feeney told jurors they will hear "the history of air bags in this country over the last 30 years."

Feeney said the air bag's design met federal safety standards, that the devices must rapidly inflate to be effective, and that warnings about proper passenger positioning have been used industrywide.

"For this vehicle to have been defective, every vehicle would have to be defective from a warning standpoint," he said.

He called Alison's death the product of "one horrible, narrow set of circumstances" and said that if t seat belts had been properly used there would have been "no injury, no fatality, no nothing."

Feeney dismissed claims that the automaker rushed the air bag into vehicles without adequate testing, saying that testing was evident in the findings that sitting too close to the deploying devices was risky.

The Sander's attorney has said "everyone was belted." He questioned whether the air bag should have even deployed in a crash involving a van he said was traveling 9 to 16 mph. Feeney said the van was moving 30 mph.

Alison died the next day after being taken off life-support, Peters said.

The trial is the second case of a child being killed by an air bag in a DaimlerChrysler minivan to go to trial. A federal jury in New York found the company partially liable in a 1995 case, but a judge threw the verdict out. That case is on appeal.

The family attorney told jurors that "this case is going to be proven from Chrysler materials" and testimony from Chrysler witnesses.

Several recent liability cases against automakers have resulted in large awards, including a $4.9 billion award to a California family against General Motors Corp. after the family's 1979 Chevy Malibu was rear-ended by a drunken driver and exploded into flames. That award was later reduced to $1.09 billion, though GM is still appealing the ruling.

The plaintiffs have not revealed how much they are seeking from DaimlerChrysler, which earned $5.8 billion on revenue of $41.7 billion last year.

Sanders is a founding member of Parents for Safer Air Bags, a nonprofit group that has lobbied the U.S. government for more explicit safety warnings and better air bags.

An estimated 93 million vehicles in the United States are equipped with air bags, nearly half of all cars and light trucks on the road.

But critics say children and small-statured adults can be dangerously vulnerable to serious injury or death from the violent force of an air bag.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration says that air bags have saved 5,303 lives, and have been linked to 153 deaths.

Since March 1997, most automakers have installed what Peters said Friday could have spared Alison's life: air bags that deploy with less force then previous models. Federal data show that air bag deaths have declined sharply for vehicles made since then.

Sanders has said he still carries guilt about the crash that his attorney said Friday left him screaming, "temporarily insane" and briefly seeking treatment in a mental hospital.

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