On July 14, 2000, Stephanie Collins’s life changed. Her daughter Crystal was sitting in the rear passenger seat of their Ford Escort right behind Collins. Collins Mother pulled over to the side of the street to make way for an approaching ambulance. A Honda Civic rear-ended their Escort at less than 30 mph. They hardly felt any impact from the crash. It was a fender bender that didn’t even break her car’s taillight bulbs.
But, when Collins turned around, Crystal’s usually bright blue eyes were black and opened wide. She had suffered fatal internal bleeding after the Escort’s front seat seatback (with Collins sitting in it) slammed back and struck Crystal’s chest. The blow proved fatal and Crystal died a month before her 8th birthday.
A 16-Year Battle Still Goes On
For 16 years, Collins has been fighting tirelessly to ensure that what happened to her daughter never happens again. She went after Ford Motor Co. in an effort to prove that their seatbacks were no better than lawn chairs when it came to protecting vehicle occupants. But, no attorney would take her case. And that’s when auto defect attorney Brian Chase, senior partner at Bisnar Chase, stepped in.
“Brian did the crash testing on the vehicle, which is hugely expensive,” Collins said. “He took a very costly risk on my case no one else was willing to take. I could never have found another lawyer who would’ve done that for me.” The crash testing proved what Collins had been saying all along, that the seatbacks were weak, dangerous and defective, and Ford knew all along that they had the potential to cause catastrophic injuries and deaths.
Collins ended up settling with Ford, but she used the money to buy a big rig to store all the evidence that was secured in the process. She traveled around the country telling her story hoping that it would help make a difference. In addition to Bisnar Chase, Collins also had a friend in CBS reporter Randy Paige, who interviewed her in 2002 for a local station. Cynthia Thompson of CBS followed up with a three-part series on the issue of defective seat backs, which aired last month.
“These reporters really cared and it’s made a difference because now Congress is looking into it,” Collins said. “It took 16 years, but finally the issue is getting the attention it’s deserved all along.”
Catastrophic Injuries and Fatalities
The CBS News investigation showed that more than 100 people – mostly children – have been severely injured or killed by seat back failures since 1989. Many of those incidents occurred after Crystal’s death, which distresses Collins greatly.
Senators Ed Markey and Richard Blumenthal have now written to 19 automakers including Honda and Ford demanding answers about seatback failures and the deaths they have caused. The deadline for automakers to get back to Congress is June 23.
What would Collins like to see happen on June 23? She says she would like to see criminal charges filed against the automakers for allowing seatback deaths and catastrophic injuries to happen. She would like to see a comprehensive reporting system where victims of crashes can report to the U.S. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) about defective seatbacks.
Currently, there is no field in NHTSA’s form that allows the public to report a seatback collapse. As a result they don’t have data about seatback collapses, which are not just occurring, but killing 100 children each year, according to Clarence Ditlow, executive director of the Center for Auto Safety. But, since NHTSA, doesn’t have a mechanism to receive those reports, they simply deem that seatback defects are “not a problem” when safety experts are calling it a public safety crisis in America.
Gratitude to Whistleblower
Collins also has words of gratitude for whistleblower Paul Sheridan, the engineer who was in charge of the Chrysler minivan safety team. Sheridan has divulged key information about how Chrysler deliberately hid seatback defects from consumers when they could have fixed the problem for a dollar per vehicle. Sheridan said he had called for an internal investigation into seat strength shortly after the segment aired. But the company resisted. In fact, he was told to “retrieve and destroy the meeting minutes.”
Sheridan also said Chrysler deliberately hid evidence of its faulty seats from the public and that both the automaker and NHTSA, which is supposed to be a public safety watchdog, withheld crash footage that clearly showed seats collapsing in rear-end crashes. It didn’t become public until a recent civil trial. The law with regard to seat strength is old and outdated.
Holding Automakers Accountable
Collins said Sheridan told the truth at the expense of losing his job, a great service to consumers. But, Collins says she has derived absolutely no sense of gratification from the work she has done over the last 16 years and that, she says, is because children are still dying. Not much has been done to stop this epidemic and hold automakers accountable. “I won’t have any gratification until the people responsible are held criminally liable,” Collins said. “It’s something that is owed to all victims of seatback deaths and their families – victims before and after Crystal.”
What keeps her going despite the emotional rollercoaster this entire process can prove to be? “I don’t want to stop being Crystal’s mother,” says the mom, getting emotional, 16 years after her daughter’s tragic, untimely death. “If I can fight for another child’s life, I will. It gives me some sense of motherhood. The next child’s face keeps me going.”