WIDOW TELLS COMMITTEE HOW HER LAWSUIT UNCOVERED SEAT BELT DEFECT, HELPS CONSUMERSFeb 27, 2003 | www.autosafety.org
The widow of a man who died as the result of a defective seat belt came to Austin to urge lawmakers not to make it harder for citizens to file and win lawsuits that expose unsafe products.
"When you make it harder for average people to discover the truth and punish wrongdoing, you no longer have justice for all," said Yvonne Moran, of Sinton, TX. Moran testified before the Texas House Committee on Civil Practices, which is hearing proposals that would sharply limit access to the legal system by victims of dangerous products.
A Corpus Christi jury in 2000 found that the seat belt buckle on Bart Moran's 1997 Dodge minivan was defective in its design and responsible for his death in a low-speed rollover on December 17, 1996, in Corpus Christi. Yvonne and her daughter won a $6.7 million court award from DaimlerChrysler and the seatbelt manufacturer. The case is on appeal.
"I have been working since Bart's death to alert consumers to this defective seat belt, and to get Chrysler to recall these belts and to stop installing them in their cars. Without my court case, and the evidence of wrongdoing it provided, I wouldn't be here today to warn people about this defective product. I would be just another victim, powerless to find the truth, " Moran said.
At least 15 deaths and 18 serious injuries have been attributed to accidental unlatchings of these seat belts, known as the Gen3, Moran said. She said a web site set up to alert consumers of the danger has collected nearly 140 reports of accidental unlatchings from people all over the country. Many of these reports involve the release of Gen3 seat belts from around infant and child car seats, she said.
"I never expected to find myself in this situation. No one does. But when you do, you discover that certain rights are so precious. For me - and I hope for the people who hear my message today - the ability to take full advantage of the legal system to right a wrong is one of the most precious.
"Please don't help silence the voice of average citizens," Moran told committee members.
More than 14 million DaimlerChrysler vehicles including all minivans produced since 1994 are known to be equipped with Gen3 seat belts. According to evidence compiled in the Moran case, Chrysler has known since at least 1996 that the Gen3 seat belt buckle has a tendency to come unlatched during vehicle crashes and that the buckle consistently fails a standard industry test for accidental release.
Nearly a year ago, the Washington, D.C.-based consumer group, Center for Auto Safety called on Chrysler to initiate a voluntary recall of all vehicles equipped with the Gen3 buckle and replace them with a safer design. The request was made after a nationally televised news program showed the Gen3 buckle failing a test for accidental unlatching conducted by an independent testing laboratory "100 per cent of the time."
The Gen3 buckle is distinguished by a button that protrudes significantly beyond the button cover, enough so that a loose object or flailing arms during a roll-over crash can unlatch it by striking it. In other buckles, the buttons are flusher with the button cover and must be depressed below the cover to unlatch.
Depositions in the Moran lawsuit showed Chrysler engineers testified that after viewing crash tests of the 1998 Dodge Durango and Dodge Dakota that appeared to show safety belts releasing accidentally, they recommended upgrading to the newer Gen4 seat belt buckle in these models in 1999.
Chrysler began installing Gen4 seat belt buckles in the front seats of its minivans starting with 2000 year models, but has retained Gen3 buckles in the two rear seats.