Protecting Children from Death and Paralysis:
Making Child Car Seats Safer
A Central Oregon couple, like any parents, wanted to keep their child safe. As their daughter grew from infancy to being a toddler, they needed a new child car seat for her. They went to Wal-Mart and picked out a model that seemed like the perfect combination of safety and convenience. It was a Cosco “Explorer” car seat. That model had a padded curved bar that went across the lower part of the child’s torso. Also called a “low shield” booster seat, the design was popular at the time the couple bought this model.
One April day, the mother, father, and child were driving from Central Oregon toward the Willamette Valley. The three and a half year old little girl was sitting in the back, on the passenger side, in the child car seat, which was secured by the lap/shoulder belt. The family was on Highway 20, and had already passed the Santiam Pass. While they were headed down the highway just west of Potato Hill, another car was coming the opposite direction. There was gravel on the road left over from the highway maintenance trucks. The other car was going to fast, lost control on the gravel, and slid into the lane of the Central Oregon family’s car.
When the two cars crashed at highway speeds, the low shield on the child seat held the child’s lower torso in place, but there was nothing to restrain the child’s upper torso. The head and upper body whipped forward with such force that the weight of the head pulled the head away from the bones of the neck. When that happens, the spinal cord is stretched and damaged. The mechanism of harm is called a distraction injury, and involves the pulling apart or separation of the neck bones (vertebrae) just below the skull.
As a result of the design of the child seat that allowed her upper torso to be flung forward in the crash, the little girl suffered permanent damage to her spinal cord between her first and second cervical (neck) vertebrae. That injury caused permanent quadriplegia. Many consider quadriplegia to be the most serious survivable injury to the spinal cord, although many people die from this kind of traumatic injury. With quadriplegia, the person loses all function below the level of the neck, and are unable to move their arms, torso, or legs.
A spinal cord injury at this high of a level causes a person to lose the ability to breathe. By chance, medical people were also driving on the highway nearby, and were able to keep the child alive until emergency medical personnel arrived. After the child was taken to the hospital, she would spend the remainder of her life on a respirator.
Quadriplegia also causes permanent loss of bowel, bladder, and sexual functions. A person suffering from this kind of spinal cord injury requires a lifetime of expensive medical and assistive care, devices, and other measures. The family’s house was modified so that their daughter could get around in an electric wheelchair. One room of the home was effectively turned into a medical supply and treatment room. The parents were trained in how to provide fundamental care for a person who becomes dependent on others for virtually everything. The economic toll alone on a child who sustains this kind of an injury may run into the eight figures (over $10 million).
Low shield booster seats, because they did not have any upper torso restraint, did not adequately restrain children in foreseeable front crashes, such as the one this one. There were no warnings to the parents or others of the dangers of using a low shield booster seat or a system that lacked upper torso restraint. The products looked safe and were sold for the sole reason of keeping children safe, but were in fact dangerously defective.
One of the purposes of tort law is to compensate survivors of unnecessary, preventable harm. The harm to this child was unnecessary because it would have been prevented with the use of a better designed car seat, such as many other models that were then on the market. The crash was survivable; the child’s father received bruising in the collision, and all of the people in both cars did well afterward.
Another purpose of tort law is to help keep the community safe, primarily by enforcing safety rules. One of the fundamental safety rules is that a safety device should perform its intended function: A smoke alarm should go off when a fire gives off smoke; a car’s airbag should deploy in a frontal collision; a garage door’s sensors should stop the garage door from crushing a child, and so on. Consumers do not expect that a safety device will not properly perform its intended function, and safety products that fail that basic test should be redesigned to make them work, or be removed from the market.
This child’s case was one of a number of cases brought around the country against low shield child booster seats, which predictably caused the kinds of injuries this child sustained. This child’s case was vigorously defended by the manufacturer, with out of state law firms involved. The case was eventually settled during litigation, before trial, for a confidential amount. If you look at the marketplace now, you should find a wide range of child car seat products made by different manufacturers, all of which include features that secure the child’s upper torso so that this kind of injury does not need to happen to another child or their family.
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