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Motor Vehicle Defects Reported: 1996 Chrysler Town & Country Minivan Seatbelt Defect

Most motor vehicle defect attorneys will tell you that the 1996 Chrysler Town and Country Minivan has a dangerous seatbelt defect. In December, 2002, seven members of the extended Mendoza family were returning to their homes in Houston from a Christmas visit to Mexico when their 1996 Chrysler Town & Country minivan struck a culvert, flipped end-to-nose and rolled over. The car accident occurred on U.S. Highway 59, just west of Beeville, Texas.

In the minivan were Martin Mendoza, the driver, his wife, Denise and their children Daniel and Amy. Also in the minivan were Martin's brother, Jose, his wife, Maria and their son, Hector. All had their seat belts buckled. However, all the belts--except for Jose's in the front passenger seat--unlatched. Martin was hurled into the windshield and fell between the two front seats. Denise and Maria, who were in the middle captain's chairs, and all three children, who were riding in the rear seat, were ejected from the minivan.

Denise died instantly. Maria was fatally injured and died days later. All three children were seriously injured. Amy received numerous fractures. Hector remains paralyzed.

The families sued DaimlerChrysler, accusing the car maker of negligence in the manufacture of the defective Gen3 seatbelt. According to the auto product liability lawsuit, six of the seven buckles failed to stay latched, allowing five passengers to be ejected and the driver to be thrown into the windshield before landing between the seats.

Nationally recognized auto product defect lawyer and seat belt expert, Brian Chase believes the problem to be widespread. "The Gen3 seat belt buckle is standard equipment in an estimated 16 million Jeep, Dodge and Chrysler products and has been blamed for at least 14 deaths and 19 serious injuries," said Brian Chase.

Martin Mendoza expressed his pain. "We have been living with unimaginable pain since that day, especially since knowing that their deaths could have been prevented, had the seat belts done their jobs," said Mendoza. Mendoza's wife, Denise, and his sister-in-law, Maria, were seated in the two middle captain's chairs when the car crash occurred. "We all made a habit of buckling up and making sure our children were buckled up, just like most families," Mendoza said. "We didn't fail to buckle. Our buckles failed us."

Nationally recognized defective products lawyer, John Bisnar, observed, "What is most alarming is that not only do these buckles unlatch during car collisions, but they do so around child and infant car seats. We want to alert consumers with young children to this fact," said John Bisnar.

The Gen3 buckle is distinguished by a button that protrudes significantly beyond the button cover, enough so that a falling object or flailing arms during a car crash can unlatch the buckle by striking the button. In other seat belt buckles, the buttons are more flush with the button cover and must be depressed below the cover to unlatch.

According to Clarence Ditlow, head of the Washington D.C.-based Center for Auto Safety (CAS), the car defect can be deadly and escapes detection because, after the car crash, it appears that the occupant was not wearing a seat belt. In 2002, CAS began calling on DaimlerChrysler to urge a product recall of all Gen3 seat belt buckles and replace them with the safer Gen4 buckle.

Brian Chase believes the ill-designed Gen3 seatbelt has been proven to be faulty. "Testing by an independent engineering firm hired by a national TV news network, showed that the Gen3 failed a standard auto industry test for unintentional unlatching 100 percent of the time," said Brian Chase.

"National and statewide consumer groups have urged DaimlerChrysler to recall the buckle voluntarily. The Gen3 seat belt is unsafe and should be recalled immediately," said John Bisnar.

In 2002, a Texas judge granted national class action status to Gen3 owners, a development that could lead to a auto product recall, however, DaimlerChrysler has appealed the ruling. Although the lawsuit against Chrysler will not bring back the Mendozas killed in the car accident, it should serve as a valuable lesson to auto manufacturers to improve the safety of their seatbelts and restraint systems.

If you or a loved one has suffered serious injuries as the result of a defective auto part or vehicle, contact the experienced California auto products liability attorneys at Bisnar Chase Personal Injury Attorneys for a free consultation. We will use our extensive knowledge and resources to achieve the best possible results for you and your family.

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