A Texas jury awarded the family of a 19-year-old woman $1.8 million after finding a defective seat design contributed to her death in a July 2007 traffic accident.
Rebekah Goodner and her sister Sara were taking turns driving their 2005 Hyundai Tucson from San Angelo, Texas, to Dallas when Rebekah lost control of the vehicle, causing it to roll over 3 times. Rebekah remained safely buckled in her seat and suffered only from minor neck pain. Tragically, Sara, who was also wearing her safety belt when the rollover happened, was thrown from the rear window of the Tucson and suffered severe head injuries. Emergency workers declared her dead at the scene.
“One walks away with a sore neck, and one doesn’t walk away at all,” the girls’ father Stu Goodner told the San Angelo Standard-Times.
The difference between Rebekah’s fate and Sara’s came down to the angle of a reclining seat. Sara had reclined the back of her seat while the car was in motion, rendering the safety belt ineffective.
Automotive safety experts say that 45 degrees is the maximum angle a car seat can recline before it becomes unsafe. The jury in the San Angelo federal courtroom agreed, handing the Goodners a victory in their lawsuit against Hyundai Motor Company.
The case is likely to have repercussions throughout the automotive industry, which produces millions of cars with the same reclining ability. Plaintiff Stu Goodner said the ruling affects 200 million vehicles in America.
Goodner added that he wanted others to be aware of how dangerous it is for people to have their seats reclined while the vehicle is traveling. “And we’re calling the auto industry out to correct this design defect so that no other family has to bury one of their children,” he said.
Hyundai’s attorney Tom Bullion was surprised by the verdict because, he said, in an area such as San Angelo people believe strongly in taking personal responsibility for their actions.
“It seemed to me that I should’ve won the case,” Bullion told the Standard-Times. Hyundai plans to appeal the verdict.
An attorney for the plaintiff called the idea of a reclining seat that is to be used only while the vehicle is parked “ludicrous.”
“People have absolutely no clue about the risk hazards and dangers of reclining their seats while driving down the road,” he said. “It’s absolutely treacherous to do it.”
According to the Standard-Times, there has been some debate at the federal level over the effectiveness of safety notices concerning reclining seats in the vehicle’s owner manual. The National Transportation Safety Board warned the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration that “warnings in the owner’s manual are not an effective way to eliminate dangerous designs.”
In response NHTSA wrote, “We do not agree with your summary dismissal of the value of warnings in the owner’s manual, with regard to reclining seats or other safety matters.”