Lawsuit Filed Against Daimler in Crash

PORTLAND, Maine May 29, 2003; Clarke Canfield writing for the AP reported that a lawsuit filed Thursday against DaimlerChrysler contends that design defects caused a 15-passenger van to roll over in an accident that killed 14 migrant workers last year in Maine.

The lawsuit was filed on behalf of the crash's lone survivor and family members of 13 victims who drowned after the 2002 Dodge van veered off a bridge and plunged into the Allagash Wilderness Waterway. The Sept. 12 accident occurred as the workers from Guatemala and Honduras were headed to cut brush in the woods of northern Maine.

The lawsuit asks DaimlerChrysler to recall or retrofit its 15-passenger vans to make them safer, as well as seeking unspecified monetary damages, said Jeff Wigington, one of the plaintiffs' attorneys.

"These vans are horribly unstable," Wigington said.

The suit, which also names Thrifty Car Rental and Mayes County Chrysler car dealership as defendants, was filed in state district court in Pryor, Okla.

Mayes County Chrysler and Thrifty Car Rental are located in Oklahoma, Wigington said. He said Thrifty was negligent for allowing the van to be rented for use in an environment that made it susceptible to rollovers, while the dealership bears some responsibility through "seller liability."

Chrysler maintains that its Dodge vans are safe and have been put through thorough testing, including "extreme handling maneuvers," spokeswoman Ann Smith said. Dodge stopped manufacturing 15-passenger vans in 2002, she said.

"The preliminary information we have combines the mix of high speeds and extreme winds as the key factors in this tragic accident," Smith said.

Thrifty Car Rental, based in Tulsa, Okla., has a policy of not commenting on pending litigation, spokesman Jason Logan said. The general manager of Mayes County Chrysler declined comment.

Maine State Police said the cause of the accident was excessive speed. The driver was going an estimated 60 mph to 70 mph, "far too fast for that dirt road," said Stephen McCausland, spokesman for the Maine Department of Public Safety.

But Wigington said 15-passenger vans are inherently dangerous because of design flaws, and that manufacturers need to make them safe.

Car companies created 15-passenger vans by lengthening 12-passenger models, but without moving the rear axle back to make them more stable, Wigington said. Chrysler adds to the instability with "stadium seating" where the rear benches are higher than the front ones so everyone has a view out the front, he said.

Wigington has been involved in several lawsuits against Ford Motor Co. and Chrysler in other 15-passenger van accidents. They include a 2000 rollover that killed four members of the Prairie View A&M track team, and a 2001 accident that killed four women in Texas. Both cases were settled out of court, he said.

Some 500,000 15-passenger vans are in use on U.S. highways. According to the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration, 424 people have died in passenger van accidents in the United States since 1990.

The National Transportation Safety Board last fall called on Ford and General Motors Corp. to improve the safety performance of their 15-passenger vans. Two weeks ago, GM announced it would make stability enhancement systems standard features in its 15-passenger vans.

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