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Rollovers & Roof Crush

By Julio M. Zapata

Are auto manufacturers doing enough to reduce roof crush and produce safer vehicles?

Rollover crashes are the most common cause of roof crush. In fact, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (“NHTSA”) more than 10,000 people are seriously or fatally injured each year in rollover crashes. Since the early part of the twentieth century, the nexus between rollovers and injuries to occupants from roof crush has been recognized. Notwithstanding this acknowledgment, the auto industry continues to deny the relationship between roof crush and occupant injuries.

What is roof crush?

Roof crush is the amount of cave-in a passenger vehicle’s roof sustains in a rollover crash. When the roof intrudes too far into the passenger compartment—the Occupant Survival Space—during a rollover, it causes windows and doors to break open and reduces headroom. This is significant from a safety point of view because open doors and windows allow unbelted occupants to be ejected from the vehicle. Further, it allows the Occupant Survival Space to be compromised, causing belted passengers to come into hard contact with the vehicle’s roof. Under either scenario, serious injury, and often life-altering injuries result. Being hurt in a rollover crash often translates to a defective roof lawsuit.

What do auto manufacturers say about it?

Auto manufacturers claim that the forces generated during a rollover crash, and not the lack of Occupant Survival Space from the roof crushing in, causes the injuries or fatalities. In addition, auto manufacturers argue that rollovers are random events that cannot be duplicated. As such manufacturers rarely conduct rollover tests to guide their roof design or roof construction decisions. 

What should the United States do to increase roof crush safety standards?

Providing adequate roof strength for rollover accidents isn’t really difficult; European auto manufacturers have been doing it for decades. Many American vehicles – which were constructed with stronger materials than today’s vehicles - performed well in rollovers decades ago. However, the weak federal standard-FMVSS 216- cost cutting and design changes have long since eliminated most rollover crashworthy vehicles from the domestic markets.

NHTSA’s FMVSS 216 test sets the minimum strength requirements for a vehicle’s roof crush resistance. The purpose of this minimum standard is to reduce injuries and death due to the crushing of the roof into the Occupant Survival Space in rollover crashes. It, however, does not require auto manufacturers to conduct dynamic rollover tests on roofs. The federal minimum standard also fails to consider what material the vehicle’s roof is made of and how it is constructed. These failures have led to many successful defective product lawsuits against auto manufacturers.

NHTSA recently announced a final rule increasing the minimum roof strength requirement. This is a move in the right direction, although not enough. NHTSA’s minimum standard has required a vehicle’s roof to withstand 1.5 times its weight in static testing pressure when involved in a rollover crash for the past 35 years, a standard that has been severely criticized by consumer advocate groups as outdated.

The new minimum standard requires a vehicle’s roof to withstand three times its weight in pressure when involved in a rollover crash and allows injured consumers to sue manufacturers in state court. The new minimum standard calls for a phase-in schedule, which begins in September 2012 and will be completed for all affected vehicles by the 2017 model year.

How are roof crush cases handled?

Cases involving defective vehicle products, including roof defects leading to roof crush, require the application of strict liability laws. Strict liability laws require the victim of an accident involving a defective product to prove that the product was defective and unreasonably dangerous at the time it left defendant’s control, and that the defect was a cause of plaintiff’s injury. Unlike plaintiffs in other tort cases, the plaintiffs in a defective product case do not need to prove negligence in order to recover compensation from the auto manufacturer and/or their insurance companies. Product liability lawsuits may be filed on grounds of design flaws, manufacturer’s flaws, insufficient warning labels or directions, and other causes.

Mr. Zapata is a member of the firm’s Personal Injury Practice Group. Mr. Zapata’s personal injury practice focuses on accidents involving serious bodily injury arising out of auto accidents, trucking accidents, and also includes product’s liability claims against auto manufacturers. 

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