The Law Offices of Robert M.N. Palmer, P.C. and Comerford and Britt, LLP have been retained by Scott H. Richardson to bring suit for the wrongful death of his wife, Elizabeth Richardson, resulting from an April 1, 2000 motor vehicle accident. The suit currently pending in the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of North Carolina, Winston-Salem Division, includes product liability claims and failure to warn claims against General Motors Corporation for the death of Elizabeth Richardson, and these claims are the subject of this mediation.
This case has been brought by Scott Richardson for fatal injuries sustained by Elizabeth Richardson while she was riding as a front seat passenger in a 1997 GMC Yukon, driven by the Richardsons' 16-year-old son George. As discussed in more detail below, the accident occurred when a vehicle traveling in the opposite direction crossed the median and entered the lane occupied by the GMC Yukon, resulting in a frontal collision of the Yukon with the side of the opposing vehicle. At the time of the accident, Elizabeth Richardson, with her manual 3-point restraint fastened, had the Yukon's right front seatback fully or nearly fully reclined. Due to the serious defects in the design of the GMC Yukon, and GM's failure to warn occupants of the dangers of reclining a seatback while a vehicle is in motion, Elizabeth Richardson suffered fatal injuries.
On the afternoon of April 1, 2000, decedent Elizabeth Richardson and her son George were driving east on Rt. 40, on their way to Wrightsville Beach, NC. Sixteen-year-old George was driving his 1997 GMC Yukon, and his mother was in the right front passenger seat. At approximately 1:35pm, a westbound 1991 Acura Legend operated by a 26-year-old male driver, allegedly came upon an unidentified slower moving vehicle at a relatively high rate of speed. The driver of the Acura swerved to his left to avoid the slow vehicle, lost control and went out of his lane to the left across the center median, through the median protection cables, and into the eastbound lane occupied by the Richardson vehicle, essentially perpendicular to the Yukon's direction of travel. George Richardson saw this happening and applied his brakes, skidding 74 feet before colliding with the right front area of the Acura. The impact separated the Acura into two pieces. After impact, the Richardsons' Yukon traveled eastward another 85 feet while spinning 1½ revolutions counter-clockwise. (See Exhibit 1 - police accident report; Exhibit 2 - photographs of the accident site; Exhibit 3 - photographs of the 1997 GMC Yukon; Exhibit 4 - photographs of both halves of the 1991 Acura Legend.) Plaintiff's accident reconstructionist, Steven Meyer, has calculated that the delta-V (change in velocity) of the Yukon was approximately 35 mph, with a principle direction of crash force from left frontal at approximately 11 o'clock.. (Exhibit 5 - Meyer expert report.)
The lap-shoulder-belted driver of the Acura, despite the fact that his vehicle was cut in half at the firewall, received very minor injuries, and was actually out of his vehicle and walking around after the accident. George Richardson, the driver of the Yukon, also was wearing his 3-point restraint, and his airbag deployed. The front of the Yukon on George's side took the brunt of the collision forces, and he suffered an open right tibia fracture and multiple fractures to his left foot. He has fully recovered. The right front passenger in the Yukon, 51-year-old Elizabeth Richardson, although her 3-point belt was fastened and her airbag deployed, and although her position was furthest from the crash forces and her occupant space was essentially intact, received terrible internal injuries and died at the accident scene. At the time of the collision, she had her seatback fully reclined (utilizing the reclining feature designed and installed by General Motors).
The occupant protection system of the 1997 GMC Yukon is defectively and negligently designed by General Motors, and is unreasonably dangerous because the right front passenger seat is designed to permit full recline of the seatback while the vehicle is in motion. With the seatback reclined, the occupant does not receive restraint benefits from the 3-point belt system; in fact, with the seatback reclined, the belt webbing of the lap/shoulder restraint becomes a deadly injurious mechanism. Reclining increases the degree of "submarining" under the lap belt, so that the lap belt loads directly into the soft abdominal organs. After that loading, the tendency is for the torso to then jackknife forward and upward colliding with the shoulder belt, causing chest and neck injuries.
According to the analysis of Plaintiff's expert biomechanicist, Dr. John Lenox (expert report attached hereto as Exhibit 6), prior to the collision Mrs. Richardson was fully reclined, and turned somewhat onto her right side. At collision, she either had pre-submarined her lap belt during pre-impact braking, or she submarined dynamically during the crash pulse, so that the lap belt was above her iliac crests and loaded the soft tissues of her abdomen, causing massive organ and tissue disruption, and fatally massive abdominal hemorrhaging. Since Mrs. Richardson was reclined, her shoulder belt (although latched) was not in contact with her chest pre-impact; instead, it had a straight-line configuration from B-pillar to latchplate, suspended above and forward of her reclined position. During the collision event, as her abdomen was loaded by the lap belt, her torso jackknifed forward, and her torso and the base of her neck slammed violently into the shoulder belt. This impact caused severe chest and larynx injuries -- in themselves probably fatal even absent her devastating abdominal injuries.
The direct and proximate cause of Elizabeth Richardson's death was the defectively designed and unreasonably dangerous reclining seatback feature in the 1997 GMC Yukon. Had the seat been designed so that it could not be reclined while the vehicle was in motion, and/or if General Motors had effectively warned Mrs. Richardson of the dangers of riding with the seatback reclined, she would have been seated in an upright position so that she could receive the full restraint benefits of her seatbelts and airbag in this collision, and she would have survived as the other occupants did.
General Motors Corporation, and the automotive industry in general, were well aware for decades of the dangers of reclining one's seatback while a vehicle is in motion. In his report for this case (attached hereto as Exhibit 7), Plaintiff's expert David Biss cites numerous references to this knowledge, and to the basic restraint principles which the reclining seatback violates. Particularly damning are the opinions of GM's own engineers when the company was initially considering the installation of a reclining seatback feature in its passenger vehicles.
At the time it was developing three-point belts for use in the front seating positions of its products, General Motors scheduled a series of reclined seat tests "to determine if there are any hazardous effects caused by using this seat option." GM internal memo, January 10, 1972. (See Exhibit 8, p.3.) Those tests showed "a definite reduction in protection for recline angles greater than 20°, whereas the protection level below 20° was not noticeably compromised." GM internal memo, July 3, 1972. (See Exhibit 8, p.5.) "The deterioration of the protection level is due to the reclined occupant attitude as he moves forward into the restraint device." GM internal memo, June 23, 1972. (See Exhibit 8, p.6.) General Motors personnel recognized the hazardous nature of reclined seats if an occupant reclined his or her seat more than 30° and concluded that they would "not recommend that this seat/restraint system be used at these large recline angles." GM internal memo, April 5, 1972. (See Exhibit 8, p.21.) General Motors also considered limiting to a safe amount the degree to which a seat could be reclined.
Recent 30 mph barrier simulation sled tests confirm the original
recommendation to limit the reclining seat adjustment to 20°
beyond the normal back angle. The fact that our competitors,
both domestic and foreign, market reclining seats with adjustments
greater than 20° does not justify our doing so.
GM internal memo, July 3, 1972 [emphasis added]
(See Exhibit 8, p.5)
Despite this knowledge, and the recommendations of its own R&D engineers, General Motors elected to design reclining seatbacks, and to install them in GM vehicles. An advertisement for the 1973 Chevrolet Caprice clearly demonstrates GM's cynical decision to persuade its customers of the "virtues" of a feature it knew was hazardous: "…And there's a most accommodating front seat you can add so your passenger can recline in comfort…" (Exhibit 8, p.17). This was, quite simply, a market-driven decision -- the design and installation of a marketable "comfort/luxury" feature, the dangers of which GM fully knew far outweighed its utility. In fact, during the course of this lawsuit, GM will certainly assert that the reclining seat is only intended for -- and is only safe for -- use while the vehicle is parked. That in itself is a confirmation of the risk v. utility imbalance of the design.
GM's other likely argument for this design will be that the general motoring public has substantial awareness that reclining a seat while the vehicle is in motion is an easily apparent and obvious hazard. This is completely unsubstantiated and patently untrue. There is no evidence from GM, and no documentation produced in this case, that General Motors ever conducted a single study or survey to assess the knowledge of the general public, or GM owners/occupants specifically, regarding the hazards of reclining a seat while a vehicle is in motion. Lacking such information as to the public's actual knowledge, GM was severely negligent in making assumptions of the public's knowledge during the design process.
Obviously General Motors, with all its engineers and other restraint specialists, and its access to sled test and crash test facilities, was well aware of the reclining seat hazards. But the general public and occupants of GM vehicles, without access to such scientific and engineering resources, and without clear guidance and warning from the manufacturer, are not aware at all of the extreme danger of riding in a reclined seat while a vehicle is moving. General Motors had a duty, therefore, to warn and instruct its customers and occupants of GM vehicles of the severe hazards of reclining a seatback while a vehicle is in motion. GM has failed miserably in that duty, and Elizabeth Richardson and many others have subsequently suffered for GM's failure. As Plaintiff's warnings/human factors expert, Dr. Kenneth Laughery, explains in his report, the warnings associated with the 1997 GMC Yukon are totally inadequate.(Exhibit 9 -- Laughery report). The only warnings are embedded within the large owner's manual for the vehicle, a document which GM and the auto industry in general know is not read by the vast majority of vehicle owners. The most critical and effective sort of warning is an attention-attracting on-product warning -- e.g., labels and/or backlit reminders with chimes or other auditory signal. In his report (Exhibit 9, p. 5), Dr. Laughery has provided a sample of the sort of warning label GM could have -- and obviously should have -- placed on the vehicle. There are no on-product warnings in the Yukon regarding the reclining seat feature. GM also could have initiated point-of-sale warnings and instruction, with brochures and sales personnel providing this vital information to the customer at the time of purchase of the vehicle. General Motors, however, provided Elizabeth Richardson with no accessible warning regarding the dangers she faced. Could GM actually state with a straight face that it expects a passenger in a vehicle, after being seated and before the driver accelerates, to locate and read the owner's manual? Such an expectation is obviously utterly ludicrous. Yet absent that action on the part of a passenger, GM has provided no warning or instruction whatsoever regarding the deadly nature of the reclining seatback.
Had General Motors limited the reclinable angle of its seatbacks, as its own engineers urged nearly 30 years before the manufacture of the 1997 GMC Yukon, or if GM had provided a clear and effective warning of the dangers of reclining the seat while the vehicle is in motion, Elizabeth Richardson would be alive today. Tragically, GM chose a marketable "comfort/luxury" feature over safety, and then compounded that defective and negligent design decision by failing to warn occupants of the extreme hazard. As a direct and proximate result, Elizabeth Richardson died.
Elizabeth and Scott Richardson were married over 27 years, and their family included their three children. At the time of their mother's death, George Richardson was 16 years-old, Susan Richardson was 19 years-old, and Libby Richardson was 21 years-old. Libby has since graduated from the University of North Carolina and currently lives in Jackson Hole, Montana. Susan is currently a student at that university, and George has applied and hopes to go to UNC following his high school graduation this year.
As would be expected, the untimely and traumatic death of Elizabeth Richardson has profoundly impacted her children and husband. Even though she ran a small floral arrangement business from their home, Elizabeth was a full-time mother and wife. The children were close to their mother, and she saw and spoke regularly with her daughters after they had left the home to attend college. Elizabeth Richardson's children and husband have all been deprived of her society, companionship, comfort, guidance and advice. Each of these losses is compensable under the state wrongful death statutes.
In addition to the witnesses that will discuss the impact of her loss on her family, evidence at trial will include members of Elizabeth Richardson's community that can attest to her involvement in that community and depth to which her loss is felt by friends, members of her church, and members of civic organizations in which she was involved.