Automakers’ internal documents show that they wanted to get high-capacity vans to market quickly and cheaply. To do so, they dismissed safer alternative designs.
Robert E. Ammons
More than half a million 15-passenger vans travel the nation’s roadways today. The vans are used primarily to transport church groups, day-care children, high school and college athletes, and other groups. Over the past few years, hundreds of people have been killed or seriously injured in crashes involving these vans. The stories are heart-wrenching.
• In March 2001, two people were killed and 10 injured when a van transporting homeless people from Los Angeles to a church ministry in Chicago overturned five miles east of the New Mexico-Texas state line.
• In May 2001, four people were killed and eight injured when a van carrying members of the First Assembly of God Church in Burkburnett, Texas, rolled over after a tire blew out.
• Also in May 2001, a teenager was critically injured when a van carrying Boy Scouts flipped after being hit by another vehicle.
• In June 2002, five firefighters traveling from Oregon to battle wildfires in Colorado were killed when the van in which they were riding rolled over.
Ford, DaimlerChrysler, and General Motors dominate the U.S. market for 15-passenger vans, with Ford manufacturing and selling 80 percent of the 21,000 vans sold yearly.1 One researcher has analyzed crash data and concluded that the Ford Super Club Wagon “ranks as one of the most dangerous passenger vehicles for rollovers ever built.”2
A recent analysis of the federal government’s Fatal Accident Reporting System data shows that 919 people were killed or suffered incapacitating injuries in 214rollover crashes involving 1981 to 1999 model year Ford E-350 Super Club Wagons.3 During the same period, 662 people were killed or severely injured in 1981 to 1999 model year E-350 single-vehicle rollover crashes.4 Of all fatal, single-vehicle crashes involving the E-350, 79 percent were rollover accidents .5 Another study notes that 7,758 years of life were lost in E-350 single-vehicle rollover accidents and that 10,777 years of life were lost in all E-350 rollover crashes.6
Studies like these, as well as lawsuits, have prompted organizations that use 15-passenger vans to recognize that the vehicles have serious design defects. As a result, many groups have limited or discontinued their use.
For example, the New York Times reported in August 2002 that the U.S. Marine Corps was considering “limiting the use of the vans because of safety concerns” and that the Marine Corps had issued a safety alert to all of its personnel who use them.7
The same article reports that some insurance companies refuse to insure the vans because rollover crashes kill and injure passengers at an alarming rate.8 GuideOne, a major insurer of church vehicles, issued a report in 2002 that states, “GuideOne believes 15-passenger vans [are] inherently unsafe . We encourage our policyholders to strongly consider other transportation options.”9 Church Mutual and Brotherhood Mutual—two other large insurers—have also issued safety warnings.10
Even the van manufacturers implicitly acknowledge safety problems. For example, Ford has conceded publicly that the vans are difficult to handle.11 Not surprisingly, however, the automaker blames accidents on overloading and driver error.
Fifteen-passenger vans have three primary safety problems . The vans are:
• unstable when loaded with 10 or more passengers, leading to a significant increase in the risk of rollover crashes.
• difficult to handle under fully loaded conditions because they are susceptible to oversteer in emergency maneuvers, which leads to loss of control.
• designed so excess weight is loaded on the back left tire, increasing the likelihood of tire failure and accidents. According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), “belt-leaving-belt tread separations, whether or not accompanied by a loss of air from the tire, reduce the ability of a driver to control the vehicle, particularly when the failure occurs on a rear tire and at high speeds. Such a loss of control can lead to a crash.”12
The trouble began in the 1960s, when Ford designed the Econoline E-350 Super Club Wagon as a cargo-only vehicle. When other manufacturers began selling passenger vans in the 1970s, Ford spotted a niche in the market. The automaker introduced its first passenger van in 1975. It began selling the 15-passenger version of the E-350 in 1979, and the vehicle has remained essentially unchanged since then.
When designing the van, Ford considered building a completely different vehicle. Design considerations included an increased wheelbase, dual rear wheels, and lower ride height. Instead of incorporating these elements, however, Ford simply added another 20 inches to the back of the Econoline cargo van for another bench seat. This increased the passenger load capacity to 15 and put additional rear overhang and potential load behind the rear axle, moving the van’s center of gravity upward and rearward. This created a number of safety problems, the primary one being an increased propensity to roll over.
Ford documents indicate that its engineers considered various alternative designs that would have been superior to the quick-and-easy approach the automaker eventually adopted.13 The engineers went so far as to recommend that design changes be studied further. But Ford management decided that the cost of implementing the design changes outweighed the benefits and deferred them for future consideration. To this day, the changes have not been implemented.
Chrysler’s 15-passenger van—the Ram 3500—arrived on the market before Ford’s and also remained essentially unchanged since the 1970s until the automaker stopped manufacturing it in June 2002. Under fully loaded conditions equal to the van’s gross vehicle weight, the left rear tire is overloaded because most of the passenger and luggage weight is distributed to the left rear part of the van. As tire manufacturers claim in almost every tire-defect case, overloaded tires are a common cause of tire failure. The left rear tires on Chrysler vans are overloaded when the vehicles are used as marketed and, therefore, are more susceptible to failure, which can lead to catastrophic crashes.
Plaintiff attorneys handling cases involving 15-passenger vans should start by studying a report NHTSA released in April 2001. It led that month to a consumer warning about the vans, which was reissued in April 2002.
The safety agency conducted the study in response to high-profile, single-vehicle crashes that involved college sports teams being transported in 15-passenger vans. The study’s aim was to determine whether the vans were “unusually susceptible” to rollover.14 The researchers reviewed crash data, measured the vans’ static-stability factor (SSF)—a formula used to compare vehicles’ resistance to rollover—against that of minivans and seven-passenger vans, and performed a simulation of the handling characteristics of loaded and unloaded vans.
NHTSA compiled and analyzed the information in its State Data System, a collection of crash data from 17 states, comprising fatalities, injuries, and property-damage-only claims. The study was specifically limited to single-vehicle accidents involving 15-passenger vans. Data from multi-vehicle crashes could have affected the results by counting rollovers that may have been caused by another vehicle, rather than by the vans’ design characteristics.
The researchers found that occupant loading had a dramatic effect on stability. Vans with 10 or more passengers were three times more likely to roll over than vans with fewer than 10 passengers.15
NHTSA also compared the inertial parameters of the 2000 Ford E-350 XLT Super Duty 15-passenger van with those of the 1998 Ford E-150 Club Wagon eight-passenger van and the 1998 Dodge Caravan. It determined that the center of gravity in the Ford 15-passenger van rose 4 inches when the vehicle was fully loaded. The center of gravity rose 1.4 inches in the E-150 and .9 inches in the Caravan. Using the SSF, the safety agency discovered that a fully loaded 15-passenger van had a 40 percent greater risk of rolling over than a lightly loaded van.16
A study conducted by an engineering firm involving a Chrysler 15-passenger van also revealed stability problems with fully loaded vans. When loaded with 150 pounds in each passenger position excluding the driver and front-seat passenger positions, the van’s center of gravity height rose 9.5 inches and moved 14.5 inches rearward. The SSF fell considerably. The van tipped onto the outriggers at just 35 mph in J-turn tests.17
When NHTSA loaded a 15-passenger van to full capacity, it determined that the rear tire bore over 65 percent of the vehicle’s weight, compared with just over 50 percent in seven-passenger vans and minivans. Overloading the rear of the van lifted the front and changed handling characteristics dramatically. Under fully loaded conditions, the van was predicted to be difficult to handle. The agency noted that the change in handling characteristics was a “topic of concern” because the changes were not obvious and were “known to cause safety problems.”18 In one simulation, the fully loaded van rolled over at only 30 mph.
As a result of the study, NHTSA issued a warning about the extreme instability of fully loaded 15-passenger vans.
In October 2002, the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) issued a safety report that reached essentially the same conclusion as the NHTSA study. The NTSB also recommended that 15-passenger vans be tested for potential technological safety systems, such as electronic stability-control systems that would help drivers maintain control.19
When handling these cases, be prepared for a defense motion in limine regarding the NHTSA study and warning, as well as the NTSB safety report.
Understanding why vehicles roll over is essential to handling 15-passenger van cases. The most important measurement is the vehicle’s static-stability ratio, which enables an expert to determine the amount of force needed to overturn a vehicle that is not moving.
A vehicle’s stability is determined by its center of gravity and its track width—the distance between the center line of the right front (or back) tire and left front (or back) tire. In some situations, the front and rear track widths may vary somewhat; in that case, an average is calculated. The center of gravity is the point at which the vehicle is perfectly balanced on all planes. The static-stability ratio is defined as half the track width divided by the center-of-gravity height.20 Theoretically, the higher the ratio, the more stable the vehicle.
Of course, real-world conditions are never static. A rollover is a dynamic event, involving multiple forces of varying importance. Vehicles and their component parts have a range of motion, and other factors can influence stability. For instance, suspension systems create dynamic forces that can decrease or increase the center of gravity. To compensate, many manufacturers design “sway bars” to increase the lateral rigidity of the suspension.
Fully inflated and nondefective tires can also affect stability. When a vehicle turns, the tires on the inside part of the turn tuck underneath the vehicle—this is called lateral deflection—to assist in the turns. Tire deflection decreases track width and, therefore, the stability ratio. “Stiffer” tires can also assert more lateral forces, increasing the likelihood of a rollover. Because of the many dynamic factors at work in a vehicle rollover, the real-world stability of a vehicle will always be less than predicted by the static-stability ratio.
Be prepared to explain rollover mechanisms to the jury. Tell the panel at the outset that a vehicle’s stability should be judged by a simple standard: Vehicles ought to be able to slide sideways on dry, smooth pavement without rolling over. The Ford and Chrysler 15-passenger vans flunk this test.
Many attorneys reject rollover cases when it appears that the vehicle was tripped by a curb or furrow rather than rolling over on the road surface. In 15-passenger van cases, even if the vehicle was tripped off-road, you may be able to show that the design of the van led to loss of control.
For example, Chrysler vans are susceptible to a phenomenon known as “steering wander,” a condition that requires the driver to make constant corrections to keep the vehicle on a straight path.21 Even though a curb or other obstacle may have tripped the van, this may not matter if the van’s design caused the driver to lose control in the first place.
Preparing the case
First steps. As soon as a prospective client comes through your office door, preserve the evidence. If a tire failed, investigate a potential tire-defect claim in addition to your client’s claim against the automaker. Store the van, as well as the tire and any remnants, in a controlled environment.
Immediately contact a qualified accident reconstruction expert to survey the scene and take measurements and photos of it and any vehicles involved. Also, obtain photographs from government investigators, as well as any private investigators involved in the case. These photos may depict important evidence such as skid marks or gouges in the road.
Discovery. Network with other plaintiff attorneys who have handled these cases. Most will happily give you advice and share documents that are not subject to protective orders. Critical documents include those that illustrate both the van’s history and the manufacturer’s internal guidelines and decisions regarding rollover standards and vehicle design.
Obtain documents that show the manufacturer’s knowledge of the importance of rollover resistance. In 1973, for example, Ford responded to a NHTSA rollover-standard proposal by stating, in part, “Passenger cars must be ‘forgiving’ of all manner of ‘unskilled’ driver situations that precipitate wild, panic-motivated, evasive maneuvers of drivers of wildly varying abilities. Ford passenger cars are designed to ‘forgive’ or, in the extreme, to ‘slide out’ rather than roll over, on flat, level pavement.”22 Use manufacturer statements like these at trial to argue that the same standards that apply to passenger cars should apply to 15-passenger vans designed and marketed for use by churches and schools.
The same 1973 document also makes a telling admission: “[A] light truck or multipurpose vehicle may, in certain cases, exhibit less resistance to rollover.”23 This admission demonstrates Ford’s knowledge of the rollover risk associated with 15-passenger vans.
In a 1986 document—Light Truck Limit Handling Objectives—Ford explicitly acknowledged that lights trucks have higher centers of gravity but nonetheless must be designed to be “safe and predictable in even the most severe accident-avoidance situations.”24 Again, emphasize to the jury that the same standard should apply with equal or greater force to vehicles carrying children to softball games and summer camps.
In 1997, Ford published internal rollover guidelines. The guidelines do not apply specifically to those vehicles with a gross vehicle weight greater than 8,500 pounds, thus excluding the company’s 15-passenger vans. Ford’s explanation for this exclusion has varied. By obtaining depositions from other cases, you should be able to point out the automaker’s different responses to questions on the subject and show that Ford’s reasons for excluding vans are inconsistent at best and dishonest at worst.
Ford also says that it performed internal tests in the early stages of the van’s development in which an engineer drove a vehicle through a planned maneuver and recorded his or her subjective impressions regarding its handling. But the company also claims that it does not have a single document related to these tests.25 All the documents are gone, according to Ford, despite its document-retention policy requiring that at least one copy of every company document be retained indefinitely in a master file. In some jurisdictions, this may entitle plaintiffs to a spoliation instruction.
Sources of information from Chrysler include the company’s own advertisements. For example, the automaker has stated that its van “can hold more than your daughter’s closet and carry as many as 15 happy campers.” Despite this rosy marketing picture, you can obtain correspondence between Chrysler and its suppliers or potential suppliers that demonstrate the company’s knowledge that the vans are dangerous and that alternative designs were feasible.
Safer alternative designs. Alternative designs for 15-passenger vans are easy for manufacturers to implement and for jurors to understand.
The most straightforward alternative may be the addition of dual rear wheels, which would significantly decrease the likelihood that a loss of tire pressure would cause the driver to completely lose control. The additional tires would also reduce the load on each tire, significantly reducing the tendency for loaded vans to oversteer and roll over. Vehicle stability can also be increased by widening the wheel base and lowering the center of gravity.
Warnings. Before the 2000 model year, there was no rollover warning in Ford’s 15-passenger van owner’s manual, on the visors, or anywhere else where it would make a difference. Since that year, Ford has incorporated the following warning in the E-350 owner’s manual:
Vehicles with a higher center of gravity, such as utility and four-wheel-drive vehicles, handle differently than vehicles with a lower center of gravity. . . . Avoid sharp turns, excessive speed, and abrupt maneuvers in these vehicles. Failure to drive cautiously could result in an increased risk of rollover, personal injury, and death.
This is an admission that these vans have different handling characteristics under clearly foreseeable conditions. Ford knew this more than 20 years ago and has done nothing to fix the problem or minimize the risk.
Likewise, the 1993 and early-model Chrysler vans contained no adequate warnings regarding the vans’ greater rollover propensity when carrying 10 or more passengers. The technical defects are hardly obvious to a church group or sports team. Hire a human-factors expert to tell the jury that drivers cannot be expected to know that the vans are dangerous without adequate warnings in the van, owner’s manual, or owner’s manual supplement.
Meet the defenses
Manufacturers will claim that something other than a design defect caused the rollover. As noted above, they might claim that something in the roadway—a curb or other obstruction—tripped the van. In some cases, they argue that as a vehicle slides sideways, dirt accumulates along one side of the tires, and eventually the pile is large enough to trip the van. Automakers call this a “furrow trip.”
Defeat these claims by showing that the vehicle rolled before it reached the supposed tripping mechanism. A careful survey of the accident scene by a reconstruction specialist should enable you to do this.
Manufacturers also blame the driver, claiming that his or her steering was unreasonable or unforeseeable and citing studies for support. Be prepared to prove that these studies fail to show how drivers react in real-world emergencies.26
Another standard defense is to claim that the vehicle meets or exceeds all applicable government regulations. Point out that although NHTSA is considering whether to implement a system that would rank different vehicles’ propensity to roll over, currently there is no rollover standard. Also argue that the NHTSA standards are minimum standards only.
NHTSA has stated that a vehicle’s gross-weight rating—the total amount of weight a vehicle can handle—should be set at a level within its safe loading capacity.27 Tell the jury that 15-passenger vans manufactured by Ford and Chrysler are within their gross-vehicle-weight rating when loaded with 10 or more occupants. Because they are at greatly increased risk of rollover when carrying this many passengers, you can argue that the vans do not meet this government standard.
Plaintiff attorneys are exposing the defects in 15-passenger vans. This effort must continue until the manufacturers expressly acknowledge that the vans as currently designed are extremely dangerous and that safe designs known for over 25 years should be implemented immediately.
1. Joseph B. Treaster, Some Insurers Halt Coverage for Vans Linked to Rollovers, N.Y. TIMES, Aug. 24, 2002, at A1.
2. MILTON A. CHACE, APPRAISAL OF THE ROLLOVER PROPENSITY OF THE FORD SUPER CLUB WAGON FROM OCCUPANT FATALITIES (Feb. 1998) (on file with authors).
3. RANDALL A. WHITFIELD, QUALITY CONTROL SYSTEMS CORP., THE FATAL ROLLOVER CRASH EXPERIENCE OF THE 1981-1999 FORD E-350 SUPER CLUB WAGON 5 (1998) (on file with authors).
7. Treaster, supra note 1.
9. GUIDEONE INS. & GUIDEONE CTR. FOR RISK MGMT., CHURCH & SCHOOL GUIDE FOR 15-PASSENGER VAN USE 6 (2002), available atwww.guideonecenter.com (last visited Nov. 21, 2002).
10. Treaster, supra note 1.
12. OFFICE OF DEFECTS INVESTIGATION, U.S. DEP’T OF TRANSP., ENGINEERING ANALYSIS REPORT AND INITIAL DECISION REGARDING EA00-023: FIRESTONE WILDERNESS AT TIRES 4 (2001).
13. See, e.g., FORD MOTOR CO., LIGHT TRUCK STRATEGY REVIEW (Aug. 18, 1972) (on file with authors).
14. W. RILEY GARROTT ET AL., NAT’L HIGHWAY TRAFFIC SAFETY ADMIN., DEP’T OF TRANSP., RESEARCH NOTE, THE ROLLOVER PROPENSITY OF FIFTEEN-PASSENGER VANS 1 (2001).
15. Id. at 11.
16. Id. at 12.
17. DAVID A. RENFROE, RENFROE ENG’G, REPORT 3 (2002) (on file with authors).
18. GARROTT ET AL., supra note 14, at 7.
19. NAT’L TRANSP. SAFETY BD., PUB NO. NTSB/SR-02/03 PB 2002-917005, ROLLOVER PROPENSITY OF 15-PASSENGER VANS 17 (2000).
20. See generally JAMES L. GILBERT, ANATOMY OF A VEHICLE ROLLOVER CASE (1998); LARRY E. COBEN, CRASHWORTHINESS LITIGATION (1998).
21. See Deposition of Norman Hunt, Lopez v. DaimlerChrysler Corp., No. 2001-2286 (Tex., El Paso County Dist. Ct. Sept. 18, 2002) (on file with authors).
22. Letter from J.C. Eckhold, Director, Automotive Safety Office, Ford Motor Co., to Nat’l Highway Traffic Safety Admin. ( Aug. 15, 1973).
24. FORD MOTOR CO., LIGHT TRUCK LIMIT HANDLING OBJECTIVES (Nov. 18, 1986).
25. See, e.g., Deposition of Donald Douglas Thrasher, Coulson v. Ford Motor Co., No. 96-CI-00232 (Ky., Scott County Cir. Ct. Nov. 30, 2001) (on file with authors).
26. ROY S. RICE ET AL., AUTOMOBILE DRIVER CHARACTERISTICS AND CAPABILITIES—THE MAN-OFF-THE-STREET (Soc’y of Auto. Eng’rs Paper No. 760777, 1976); see also Christine Spagnoli, Stay Ahead of the Curve in SUV Rollover Cases, TRIAL, Feb. 2003, at 54.
27. Letter from Paul Jackson Rice, Chief Counsel, Nat’l Highway Traffic Safety Admin., to Takeo Wakamatsu, Executive Vice President & General Manager, Mitsubishi Motors Am. (Apr. 29, 1991); Letter from John Womack, Acting Chief Counsel, Nat’l Highway Traffic Safety Admin., to John Paul Barber, Legislative Counsel, Am. Ass’n of Blood Banks (May 24, 1993).
Robert E. Ammons is a partner with the law firm of Stevenson & Ammons in Houston.
Reprinted with permission of TRIAL (February, 2003 ), Copyright the Association of Trial Lawyers of America
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