Lawsuits reveal what can go wrong

Three lawsuits over airbag nondeployments reveal what can go wrong with the potentially lifesaving systems.

* In South Carolina, the son of Lynda Guyton sued over an accident involving a 2003 Ford Crown Victoria. The car’s passenger-seat sensor showed no one sitting there, said the son's attorney, Johnny Parker.

Guyton, who weighed about 120 pounds, was sitting there. The violent crash threw her forward, and she suffered serious internal injuries from her seat belt, Parker said. Her airbag didn’t deploy during the March 1, 2004, accident, and she died on March 9, court records stated.

Ford maintained that the "subject vehicle was state of the art" and met all industry and governmental standards. The carmaker settled, but such agreements are not an admission of wrongdoing, said company spokesman Daniel Jarvis.“Our heartfelt concern goes to her family,” Ford said in response to The Star’s inquiry.

* In Texas, Sharon Bittner sued after the front airbag in her 1996 GMC Sonoma didn’t deploy when the truck hit a guardrail at around 33 mph. Bittner was wearing her seat belt at the time of the 2003 crash, according to the accident report. She suffered numerous injuries, including ones to her neck, knee and ribs, the lawsuit stated.

At a trial, an expert witness for Bittner Sal Fariello of Eastern Forensic Science Group, an accident reconstruction firm in Gainesville, Fla., reviewed internal General Motors records. He testified that the automaker raised the crash speed thresholds too high for firing the airbag.

"They were looking for ways to immunize this truck against expected off-road and snowplow use," Fariello explained.

So GM set the bags to inflate at a near instantaneous speed change of 16 mph, he testified. Other experts Fariello cited thought airbags should fire at a near instantaneous speed change of only 12 mph.

Bittner and the carmaker settled before the trial ended.

GM attorney Karl Viehman maintains that had the trial continued, the expert witnesses for the company would have testified that the airbag in Bittner's pickup performed as it was designed. Experts also would have said lowering the threshold for firing airbags would have led to unnecessary deployments and perhaps injuries, he said.

In settling the case, GM did not admit any wrongdoing, he added.

* In Florida, a lawsuit filed by the widow of Robert Foster, who died after a wreck that occurred driving his 2002 Buick Century, alleged the Century’s airbag system had only one sensor under the front seat.

But unlike airbag systems in some earlier models or the Century's sister cars, the Chevrolet Monte Carlo and Impala the 2002 Century lacked an additional sensor near the radiator.

At the factory, holes had even been drilled into the Century's radiator support for mounting such a sensor, the lawsuit alleged, suggesting to the plaintiff's attorney that plans were changed late in the design process.

A sensor costs automakers $10 to $40 per vehicle, experts estimated.

GM faulted Foster for the accident and said airbags wouldn’t have prevented his neck injury.

"If any defect existed in the 2002 Buick Century, which GM denies, then the condition of the vehicle . . . was not the same as when it left the possession, custody or control of General Motors," the company responded in court records.

The carmaker settled anyway.

Agreements in many of the airbag cases contain provisions to keep settlements amounts and company records secret. The practice has drawn criticism from some law professors.

If other accident victims knew the amounts of the settlements, they could make better decisions on whether it was worth suing, said Gregory Travalio, an Ohio State University law professor.

Courts sealing company records raises another issue.

"These documents, if disclosed, might allow consumers to have better information about the dangers of products," Travalio said, "and might be useful information to government regulators as well."