Houston Families Sue DaimlerChrysler Over Deadly 'Pop Open' Seat Belt; National, State Consumer Groups Urge Recall

HOUSTON, March 13 -- The following press release is being issued by The Edwards Law Firm, L.L.P.:

Two Houston families became the latest in the Nation to file suit against DaimlerChrysler today over the deaths of two women and injuries to three children during a holiday trip when their seat belts popped open during a collision, allowing all five to be ejected.

The Gen3 seat belt buckle, which is standard equipment in an estimated 16 million Jeep, Dodge and Chrysler products, has been blamed for at least 14 deaths and 19 serious injuries.

National and statewide consumer groups urged DaimlerChrysler to recall the buckle voluntarily. Three years ago, a Texas jury said the Gen3 was designed defectively and responsible for the death of a Corpus Christi man.

"The Gen3 seat belt is patently unsafe and should be recalled immediately," said Tom "Smitty" Smith, executive director of Texas' Public Citizen, a consumer advocacy group.

Sisters-in-law Denise Mendoza, 34, and Maria Mendoza, 38, died as the result of a rollover crash near Beeville, TX, on December 29, as the two families were returning from a Christmas trip to Mexico. Their 1996 Chrysler Town and Country minivan, driven by Martin Mendoza, struck a culvert in the fog and flipped. Although all the passengers were wearing their seat belts, the two women and all three children in the rear seat were ejected when their seat belt buckles released.

Denise Mendoza died instantly. Maria Mendoza died 11 days later. The three children -- Hector, 16; Daniel, 15; and Amy, 8 -- were injured seriously. Hector remains paralyzed.

According to the lawsuit filed in State District Court in Harris County, all of the Mendozas were wearing their seat belts at the time of the crash. Six of the seven buckles failed to stay latched, however, allowing five passengers to be ejected and the driver to be thrown into the windshield before landing between the seats.

"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 Martin Mendoza. Mendoza's wife, Denise, and his sister-in-law, Maria, were seated in the two middle captain's chairs when the 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."

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 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 defect can be deadly and escapes detection because, after the crash, it appears that the occupant was not wearing a seat belt.

"In terms of seat belt defects, this is one of the worst that I've ever seen," Ditlow said. "Seat belts are your last line of defense in a crash and never should fail. Yet, Chrysler's Gen3 seat belt buckles are like a perfect crime because dead men tell no tales. After a fatal crash, the occupant is not alive to say the buckle came apart."

In 2002, CAS began calling on DaimlerChrysler to recall all Gen3 seat belt buckles and replace them with the safer Gen4 buckle.

A Texas jury in 2002 found the Gen3 to be "defective as designed" and responsible for the death of 33-year-old Bart Moran, Corpus Christi, in a low- speed rollover collision in 1996.

Testing by an independent engineering firm hired by a national TV news network, showed that the Gen3 fails "100 percent of the time" a standard auto industry test for unintentional unlatching. In this test, a 30mm ball, which is meant to simulate an elbow, is pressed against a seat belt buckle. If it unlatches, the buckle has failed the test.

Court documents show Chrysler threw out this standard for the Gen3 and began installing them in most of their cars, starting with 1993 models. According to Chrysler engineers who testified in the Corpus Christi case, the automaker upgraded the buckles in the Dakota and Durango, beginning with 1999 models, after DaimlerChrysler engineers found that the Gen3 buckles unlatched during routine crash tests. The buckles also unlatched in subsequent U.S. and Canadian government crash tests.

"Why Chrysler did not upgrade the seat belts in its other models remains a mystery," said Billy Edwards, the attorney in the Corpus Christi case. In today's Dodge and Chrysler minivans, for example, all models since 2000 have different, improved buckles in the front seats, but still have Gen3 seat belts in the middle and rear seats.

"What is particularly alarming is that, in addition to unlatching during collisions, we have been inundated with reports from people who tell us that the Gen3 seat belt unlatches around child and infant car seats," Edwards added. "We especially want to alert consumers with young children to this fact."

A web site set up to collect information about the Gen3 has collected 138 reports to date of Gen3 unlatchings, mostly instances involving children, Edwards said. The reports have come from 35 states and Canada.

On July 3, 2002, a Texas judge granted national class action status to Gen3 owners, a development that could lead to a recall, however, DaimlerChrysler has appealed the ruling.

Meanwhile, Bart Moran's widow, Yvonne Moran, announced that she is forming a consumer coalition to recall the Gen3 to raise the visibility of the Gen3 defect and to encourage DaimlerChrysler to recall the buckle.

Mrs. Moran encouraged anyone who has experienced an incident involving the Gen3 seat belt hazard to report it through a web site, www.unsafebelts.com , and to file a complaint with their local Chrysler, Dodge and Jeep dealerships, as well as with the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration at www.NHTSA.gov .

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