Hervey v VW

This product liability/crashworthiness action arises out of a single vehicle rollover accident that occurred on May 23, 2005 on westbound Interstate 8 in San Diego. A little after 11:00 a.m. that morning, Plaintiff Stacy Hervey was driving her 2002 Volkswagen Jetta westbound in the #3 lane of westbound I-8. As Stacy continued westbound towards the I-163 southbound exit, another vehicle (described as a white pickup truck), also traveling westbound in the #4/far right lane, passed Stacy’s vehicle on the right. The white pickup truck then suddenly veered into Stacy’s lane of travel, causing her to lose control of her vehicle. The Jetta traveled across a

 

 Offramp guardrail

 
 VW Jetta - Subject Vehicle
 

 Top of Roof - VW Jetta

 
 Occupant compartment - VW Jetta
paved embankment and then struck a guard rail causing the Jetta to roll over.

During the rollover, the roof caved in on Stacey (who was seat belted), struck her in the head and fractured her cervical spine – rendering 25-year old Stacey a quadriplegic.

The Volkswagen Jetta was designed, manufactured and marketed by the Volkswagen defendants. Stacy Hervey is a quadriplegic because the Volkswagen Jetta was defectively designed and not crashworthy. Specifically, it is Plaintiffs’ contention that the roof structure of the Volkswagen Jetta was defectively and negligently designed, is unsafe, and is incapable of maintaining its structural integrity in rollover accidents, and that the seat belt system used in this vehicle was incapable of providing needed restraint during rollover accidents.

Crashworthiness Principles

Motor vehicles are designed with the intention of providing motorists with a safe means of transportation. What that means is that manufacturers, such as Volkswagen, are duty bound to build vehicles that are crashworthy. The concept of crashworthiness is an engineering one, not a legal one. In a motor vehicle accident, various aspects of a vehicle's design are intended to perform as "safety systems" to ameliorate the forces of the crash. The vehicle's components relevant to crashworthy design include the following: (1) vehicle structure, (2) vehicle restraint systems; and (3) vehicle interior surfaces.

In a crash, cars are designed so that the metal structure crushes or crumples in a controlled fashion, thereby absorbing much of the kinetic energy of the accident. Thus, in a front or rear impact, the structure is designed to crush and bend at certain designated points until the crush approaches what Volkswagen, safety researchers and others in the industry call the "safety cell" or "passenger cage." That section of the vehicle in which the passengers ride is then, by design, stiffened to resist crush. In non-rollover events, crush is good so long as it is controlled by design and does not intrude into the "passenger cage."

During the crash phase of a rollover accident – which can take several seconds (as opposed to the crash phase in a frontal collision which is over in 100 milliseconds) – the vehicle is slowed down as it slides and then tumbles over and makes multiple ground contacts. The tumbling action of the car causes the unbelted and seat belted occupants to ordinarily move somewhat "up and outward" depending upon the performance of their seat belts. As the vehicle starts rolling over and the seat belt applies some restraining force to the occupant, the lap belt portion of the belt should minimize what is known as vertical excursion toward the roof.

Injury to the head (brain) and cervical spine in rollovers is due to direct impact with the metal portions of the "passenger cage" as it closes in around the occupant. Because a poorly designed vehicle’s structure rapidly intrudes as the occupant in a poorly designed seat belt is allowed to fall toward the roof, head impact occurs and the velocity of the intruding roof pushes the cervical spine into compression and then it breaks.

Over the years, Automotive Researchers have addressed the crashworthiness principles important to provide rollover protection against roof intrusion. In 1971, General Motors told the government that roof crush performance needed to be developed in light of an occupant's survival space and what GM called the "zone of non-encroachment." In 1972, Volkswagen’s Chief Safety Researcher, published an engineering paper recounting the importance of designing passenger cars with a designed and defined "survival space" to accommodate the impact demands in many different types of accidents including rollovers. These industry efforts in the 1970s were soon forgotten. We have learned that while VW has over the years conducted a number of different tests to judge structural performance of its vehicles in rollovers, it nevertheless chose to design the structure to only satisfy the static testing established by the U.S. Department of Transportation National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA). Volkswagen conducted a few rollover tests with dummies but it did not design these vehicles with any performance criteria in rollovers for either the control of structural intrusion or seat belt restraint.

In an effort to provide as objective a view of the design history and design safety of the A4 Jetta (1999-2005) model Volkswagen Jetta as possible, Plaintiffs contracted with Dr. E. Clive Chirwa, the Director of the Bolton Automotive & Aerospace Research Group of The University of Bolton, in Lancashire, UK. Until he reviewed this case (and another Jetta VW rollover/roof crush/quadriplegic case) and the design of the Volkswagen Jetta, Dr. Chirwa had never before served as an expert consultant in litigation in the United States. He is the current Editor-in-Chief of the International Journal of Crashworthiness and he and his engineering team at Bolton University are world renowned experts in the fields of vehicle design, injury mitigation and crashworthiness.

In the instant case, Stacy Hervey suffered an impact which caused a compound fracture of her cervical spine at C5. Stacy s head was subjected to high impact loads from the collapsing roof structure that were transferred into her neck and down her thorax to the rest of her body. And while Stacy remained in her seat and her seat belt remained buckled, during the rollover sequence, her head was violently struck by the collapsing roof, which caused the compound fracture of her spine. Here is what happened: During the rollover event, because of the inadequacies of the seat belt, Stacy’s body began falling toward the roof. As she was moving toward the roof, the roof structure violently collapsed and intruded upward into her occupant space. When the roof structure collided with Stacy’s head it essentially stopped her head, and the buckling/intruding roof forced Stacy’s head and neck complex to compress. That compressive force independently or in conjunction with the compressive force resulting from Stacy’s falling body loaded up her neck causing her spinal cord injury. Stacy suffered a fracture at the C5 level of her cervical spine. A C5 level fracture requires a significant impact force to the head, with a resulting violent displacement of the head and neck and the delivery of at least 1000 pounds of force to the cervical spine after head impact. Stacy, who was 24 years old at the time, was rendered quadriplegic.

Since this accident, Stacy has little to no feeling or use of her upper arms, legs and feet. She has extremely limited use of her hands. She has a neurogenic bowel and bladder, and requires the use of a foley catheter. Stacy is unable to intermittently catheterize herself because she does not have full use of her hands and arms. Stacy has a high risk of continuing, serious urinary tract infections, which have resulted in her being hospitalized in the past.

LEGAL AND FACTUAL ISSUES

The 2002 Volkswagen Jetta that Stacy was driving was designed, manufactured and tested by defendant Volkswagen AG. The vehicle was marketed and sold in the United States by defendant Volkswagen of America, Inc. In its marketing of the A3, Volkswagen made a host of admissions including the importance of vehicle design to preserve the passenger "survival space" and the need to provide "solid A, B and C pillars . . . [for] protection for passengers, with stronger resistance to roof deformation." The defendants characterized the design of the section of the vehicle where motorists sit as the "passenger cage." Further, Volkswagen admitted that "[t]he resistance of the roofs and roof pillars have to be demonstrated in special rollover or compression tests."

It is Plaintiffs’ contention that the design of the restraint system used in the "A4" model Jetta is defective because it has no means to remove pre-impact slack or any other unwanted slack in foreseeable accident situations, including foreseeable rollover collisions. In addition, the vehicles structure is defectively designed because it allows significant structural intrusion in the occupant space during foreseeable rollover collisions.Seat Belt Design Issues

The restraint system in the 1999 "A4" Volkswagen Jetta consisted of a frontal instrument panel airbag and a manual 3-point, continuous loop, lap and shoulder belt system with a single-slotted sliding latchplate, a floor-mounted outboard lap belt anchor, a seat-mounted buckle, and a B-pillar mounted adjustable D-ring, as depicted below.

Aside from providing some protection against ejection in a rollover, this seat belt does not protect occupants in rollovers. The seat belt system did not include a rollover triggered sensor to deploy a needed lap belt and shoulder belt pretensioner. In the driver’s side seating position of the 2002 Jetta, the shoulder harness D-ring (as depicted in the photograph on the right above) was B-pillar mounted and the B-pillar collapsed downward and inward during this rollover. When the B-pillar fails and collapses at a level below the D-ring as it did in this crash, slack will get introduced into the seat belt system. The deformation to the left side B-pillar in the Jetta will contribute in excess of 3 inches of slack into the restraint system, and dynamic deflection will add to this value and create even more slack. The introduction of slack into the restraint compounds the problem of roof collapse by causing the occupant to move further in combination with less space to move. In this case, although Stacy was seat belted during this rollover, the design of the seat belt restraint alone was not capable of effectively protecting her due to the collapse of the roof structure into the occupant space directly above her.Roof Design Issues

Vehicles must be designed to withstand more than 3 times their weight (after the windshield is removed) without any significant roof crush. The reason for this criteria is to be assured that in a rollover accident the occupant compartment maintains its "survival space." In this case, we see significant roof crush into the occupant space where Stacy was seated.

As seen in these photographs, the left side occupant space in which Stacy was seated was significantly compromised. The roof structure over the driver’s area experienced massive failure and collapse, causing it to crush downward. Had Stacy’s occupant space not been compromised, ultimately, she would have walked away from this rollover with minor injuries.

The complete roof design is not up to appropriate protective standards. The A-, B- and C-pillars, roof rails and headers were all defective in design. Specifically, necessary load carrying characteristics associated with each of these components was inadequate and the overall resistance to deformation was inadequate. That includes the inadequate selection of welding methodology, the location, shape and size of lightening holes, the type of metal selected, the wall thickness of the metal selected, and the placement of cut outs at intersecting points such as the B-pillar/roof joint was improper. This junction in a rollover is typically loaded and placing a cut out there precipitated overload and failure. This type of buckling failure prevents load transferring which is essential to preserve the occupant space.

The Jetta’s roof experienced massive structural failure and allowed excessive roof crush to occur. The B-pillar partially collapsed and permitted additional slack to be introduced into the seat belt through the D-ring. The roof’s structural collapse caused a significant compromise of Stacy’s ride-down space and overall occupant space. Based on the evidence it is clear that Stacy sustained the mechanism of serious injury as a result of the vehicle’s roof structure coming down into her occupant space, while the seat belt restraint was allowing her to move excessively toward the collapsing structure.

Finally, this rollover accident was highly foreseeable. Once the rollover began, it was the Jetta’s "job" to protect Stacy Hervey. In this instance, the vehicle failed miserably. Neither the seat belt nor the vehicle’s structure provided the protective cocoon that motorists expect. Stacy suffered her cervical cord injury as a result of these defects.

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