Hardeman v. GM

Twenty-six year old Shequila James-Hardeman is the latest victim of the defendant General Motors Corporation's negligent and defective design of the S/T Light Trucks and SUVs. On April 8, 2003 at about 9:30 PM, Ms. James-Hardeman was the front seat belted passenger in a 1997 Oldsmobile Bravada which struck another car and rolled over on Interstate 10. The Bravada came to rest on its roof.  Because of the collapse of the roof, Shequila was pinned in and unable to breath. The other uninjured passengers and witnesses tried in vein to free her. Tragically, Shequila died at the scene because the crushed roof pinned her head to her chest and caused

 
 Subject Vehicle - Oldsmobile Bravada
 
 Subject Vehicle - Oldsmobile Bravada
positional asphyxia.

The Olds Bravada was designed and built on the same platform as the 1995-1999 Chevrolet Blazer and included the same roof structure. Shequila, therefore, joined what has become a huge number of motorists killed or catastrophically injured when this product has rolled-over and caved-in. 

Legal Claims

The Plaintiffs contend that the vehicle's rollover protection system, including the roof structure and seat belt were inadequately designed, and thereby failed to provide the protection needed during this rollover. 

Roof Design

The roof was not designed and built with sufficient strength to preserve the occupant "survival space."  The vehicle should have been designed so that the roof would maintain its shape and not intrude into the occupant section of the vehicle any more than two to four inches in this event.  GM possessed specific knowledge with regard to the defective condition of the subject vehicle before it was designed, and further failed to take any measures to either adequately warn the consuming public of such defect or to remedy the defective condition. The risk associated with the design in question is undeniably severe.  The Defendant knew of the risk and knew of it long ago.  The fix was simple -- strengthen the roof; but GM simply chose to do nothing about it.  Nothing, that is, but to conceal the problem by continuing to rely upon misinterpreted data from experiments it conducted.

The history of placing cost before safety at GM started long ago.  For instance, in 1971, GM told the government that rollover protection required sufficient strength to preserve the passenger compartment.  Nevertheless, when the government did not adopt that criteria, GM abandoned it.  GM's Research Safety Board made a policy decision following the enactment of the Safety Act of 1966 to go from designing the best and safest cars possible, to simply complying with the minimum government regulations. GM's policy choice reflected a decision to place the bottom line over human lives.  Over the years, GM's staff has conducted many studies and detailed investigations of real world injury accidents at different levels of severity and considered alternate mitigation techniques and their cost.  For example, in 1976, GM conducted a Study of "Reported Injury Loss From A-Pillar Contact" in which it classified hundreds of injury-to-car-part contacts by severity, determined alternate means of mitigating those injuries, and estimated the dollar benefit and the cost of the foreseeable injuries (with a life being valued $140,000.00).  In that report GM concluded that seat belts alone were the most cost effective (costing nothing), adding protective padding (costing about $1) was next in cost effectiveness and structural modifications were the most expensive.  Structural modifications were not made. 

Interestingly, GM's current position that there is no correlation between roof strength and occupant injury was not always its view.  Back on April 5, 1971, GM submitted to the federal government its comments on a new proposed standard specifying minimum strength requirements for passenger car roof structures.  Within those comments, GM proposed that any laboratory test procedure for roof strength be based on performance requirements using the concept of an interior "non-encroachment zone" for the front seat.  Significantly, the roof of the Olds Bravada was not designed and built with sufficient strength to preserve the "survival space" that GM proposed in its 1971 submission to the federal government. 

GM also had -- years before the truck in question was designed -- first hand knowledge of the dangers associated with a weak roof design.  On April 30, 1976, during a tire evaluation test being conducted at GM's Milford Proving Grounds, there was an unexpected rollover accident in which the passenger was killed.  The 1976 Chevrolet Crew Cab pickup truck was being driven by GM engineer, Dennis G. Kish, who was accompanied by Firestone Rubber Co. engineer David J. Yergin.  A tire blow out caused a loss of control, causing the vehicle to roll over one and a half times.  As a result of the rollover, the roof crushed down virtually to the top of the seat.  Significantly, Mr. Kish, the GM engineer driving the truck, wrote after the accident:  "I feel that the mandatory use of a roll bar and combination lap-shoulder belts could have reduced the severity of the injuries."  The policy instituted by GM following this test was to require, among other things, the incorporation of roll cages on SUV's its employees take out on the test track. Thus, it is clear that even back in 1976 (and extending at least through 1995), GM believed that roof strength was a significant safety component of a vehicle -- it simply chose not to provide it to its customers.  The incident occurring at the GM Proving Grounds was only one of the many incidents of severe roof crush that occurred prior to the production of the truck in question to which GM was privy.  GM's engineers have been studied hundreds of rollover/roofcrush/ cases, so that they are well aware of the dangers associated with rollovers with both poor structural strength and bad seat belts.

The designs GM has implemented for its cars in Europe further demonstrate its recognition of the importance of roof strength.  In 1984, GM established an internal standard for the Opel automobiles that defined the maximum amount of allowable roof crush to be 4 inches.  GM was building cars to this standard in Europe in 1988.  Despite its conduct in Europe, GM chose to disregard the substantial risk associated with a weak roof structure when it made the Olds Bravada in question for the U.S. market.

The Bravada roof structure is so bad that when this vehicle was inverted and dropped from only 12 inches-which is equal to an impact at 6 mph-the survival space was seriously compromised.                  

Once our experts identified the poor performance of the Blazer roof structure in a test which has become a standard in the industry, a second

Blazer was purchased, modified and tested in an identical manner. 

All of the changes made, if incorporated as part of the design and manufacturing of the vehicle would have added no more to the cost of the car than the charge for "luxury floor mats."  The result, however, is a lot more valuable!

Seat Belt System

Because the rollover protection system should include the roof structure and seat belt, and because GM has argued for years that roof crush does not cause neck injury and seat belts cannot prevent an occupant from falling to the roof in a rollover. Of course, in this case, Shequila died because the roof caved in and shoved her head to her chest and not because of any "inertial injury". Nevertheless, if it becomes
 

  DOCIT testing (pre-test )

 

 DOCIT testing (post-test )

germane, we can report that using the production belt with no changes, the production seat belt caused the occupant to fall on average 4.5" to the roof.  When the seat belt was modified it was capable of reducing the movement of the occupant by more than 50%.  Thus, the occupant fell only 2" to 3" in these tests.  Clearly, the less the occupant moves toward the roof, the less likely that he or she can be entrapped by the intruding roof structure.

Bio-Mechanical Analysis

To further study the relationship between roof crush, seat belt performance and neck injury, we commissioned the development and performance of dynamic drop tests using the state of the art test dummy known as the Hybrid III.  This allowed our experts to measure the forces in the dummy's head and neck when impacted.  The test system - "The Deformable Occupant Compartment Impact Tester" (DOCIT) - is pictured above.  A 5th percencile dummy (close in size to Ms. Varelas) was put in a Blazer seat and seat belt system.  The DOCIT was raised 12 inches and then allowed to freely drop to the floor.  The DOCIT is designed so that the amount of roof crush was controlled.  Variations in seat belt systems were also incorporated.  Test results show that production restraints produced high Peak Neck Forces (Z direction) which will lead to serious risk of serious neck injury.

Conclusion 

The analysis of this case and the cause of Shequila's death shows that she was entrapped by the roof structure that caved-into her "survival space". Clearly, in the absence of major roof crush, there is no expectation that Shequila would have been pinched between her seat and the roof. Asphixia would not have happened but for this huge crush.

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