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Is safety a luxury option?

Times Staff Writer

A lawsuit percolating through the Riverside County courts could knock the auto industry for a spin if a jury buys the argument that stability systems shouldn’t have been offered first only to buyers of luxury vehicles.

The suit filed by survivors of two people killed in the 2002 rollover of a Chevrolet Suburban sport utility vehicle argues that General Motors Corp. was negligent in not providing an electronic stability control system on the mainstream SUV model. GM, however, offered the system on its Cadillac Escalade SUV and several luxury cars at the time, including the Chevrolet Corvette and the Cadillac Seville.

Michael Avila, the Los Angeles attorney pressing the case against GM, said that once a safety device is developed, automakers have an obligation to offer it on all their vehicles -- economy models as well as luxury -- without regard for the effect on sales.

“The safety benefits of stability control have been known to auto manufacturers since the mid 1990s,” Avila said. “But they delayed implementing because they felt that safety was not marketable, so instead of installing on the SUVs that needed it most because of their rollover problem, they put it on luxury SUVs and cars as a performance item.”

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The Riverside case is scheduled to go to trial June 11 before Superior Court Judge Gloria Trask. Liability law specialists say a ruling against GM would fuel other suits.

“It may be that this would embolden people to try other cases,” said Stephen Sugarman, a civil litigation professor at UC Berkeley’s law school.

As it is, several similar suits are pending against various automakers, claiming that they knew about stability control systems but initially limited their use to luxury vehicles. The federal government recently mandated that these systems be installed in all new passenger vehicles starting in the 2012 model year.

Avila maintains in the Riverside suit that GM initially planned to put stability control on the Suburban at the start of the decade but dropped that plan and instead installed it on luxury cars and, in the 2002 model year, on the Cadillac Escalade. Avila said this was done to compete with European automakers Mercedes-Benz and BMW, which were offering it on their upscale cars and SUVs.

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The automotive industry has a tradition of testing expensive new safety systems in luxury vehicles first because the buyers of those vehicles are willing to pay extra for such systems.

Automakers “do have a rationale when say they like to phase something in to make sure it works right,” said former National Highway Traffic Safety Administration Director Joan Claybrook, now head of the Public Citizen safety and consumer rights lobbying group in Washington.

“But the auto industry also has a long history of withholding safety devices and fighting government regulations,” Claybrook added. “It’s fair to raise the issue of the fairness of putting stability control in some models and not in others.”

The Riverside suit was filed after the deaths in June 2002 of Rosa Maria Rodriguez, 32, and her stepdaughter, MacKenzie Shaver, 7. Rodriquez lost control of her Chevrolet Suburban as she drifted off Interstate 10 near Blythe and onto sand on the shoulder.

Avila said the Suburban began skidding as Rodriguez attempted to steer back onto the road, swerving so violently that it flipped and rolled over 4 1/2 times. No other cars were involved in the accident. Three other passengers in the Rodriguez vehicle were injured.

Had the Suburban been equipped with a stability control system, Avila said, Rodriguez and the child might not have been killed.

GM agreed in April to pay $487,500 to settle the case with MacKenzie Shaver’s estate. Avila said Rodriguez’s survivors rejected a similar settlement.

Company spokespersons declined to comment for this article, saying GM’s remarks would be limited to a statement in which it said that it “has been an industry leader in developing and offering electronic stability control on a wide array of vehicles for the last decade.”

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GM probably settled with MacKenzie’s estate in part to avoid the publicity of a trial surrounding the death of a child, said personal injury specialist Gregory C. Keating, a professor at USC law school. “And there’s the fact that the child was blameless; she wasn’t driving. That would make a big difference in a jury’s mind.”

If the Rodriguez case goes to trial, Keating said, the jury probably will be asked to consider whether it would have been cost-effective for GM to design and install stability systems on all of its SUVs and other rollover-prone vehicles at the same time.

And jurors will also have to decide whether stability control on the Suburban would have made a difference. In a recently decided case involving a Ford Explorer rollover, a federal jury in Indiana found that the accident was the fault of the driver, who fell asleep at the wheel, and that the lack of stability control didn’t contribute to the accident.

Stability control systems use sensors and microprocessors to determine when a vehicle is beginning to skid and to automatically engage the brakes on individual wheels, and often to also modulate acceleration, to help stabilize the vehicle and bring it back under the driver’s control.

Although such systems are effective in many cases, safety experts say they can’t prevent skidding and loss of control in all circumstances.

Single-vehicle rollover accidents typically occur when a driver loses control and the vehicle either skids so violently it becomes unbalanced and tips over, or skids into an obstacle, such as a low curb, that tips it over.

Many stability systems now include so-called rollover protection devices that sense when a vehicle is about to tip over and deploy various air bags to protect occupants from head injuries. GM has said that it would offer stability control on all of its vehicles by 2010, two years ahead of the federal deadline.

The independent Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, which often uses its crash test results to embarrass automakers into adding safety features, said GM was right to speed up installation of stability control now but might not have been wrong to withhold it earlier.

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“It takes awhile to find out if anything new like this really works,” institute President Adrian Lund said. “It really wasn’t until 2004 that we had enough data that we were willing to say electronic stability control looked like it worked in the real world.”


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