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March 7 — Yvonne Moran said she was certain her husband, Bart, was wearing his seat belt right before he was hurled out of his minivan's rear passenger window and killed.
"I never knew of a single moment, a single opportunity when he was not belted in a vehicle," she said. "Bart had a habit of wearing his seat belt. His was to the point of obsession."
Three other people who knew Bart Moran would later testify that he always wore his seat belt. One who carpooled with him to work even referred to him as "Mr. Seat Belt."
So why did police, the hospital, and the carmaker think he wasn't wearing a seat belt? And if he was wearing his seat belt, why didn't it prevent him from being thrown out of the vehicle?
A Primetime investigation looks at the kind of seat belt found in Bart's 1997 Dodge minivan — and millions of vehicles throughout the country — and speaks with some safety experts who say this seat belt belt is potentially dangerous because it can open more easily than other belts.
Evidence: Splattered Polish
On Christmas five years ago, Bart Moran made a run to the convenience store to buy his wife a bigger pan for the turkey that was overflowing in the oven. At 7:46 a.m., his 1997 Dodge Caravan was hitby a Ford Taurus driven by a 17-year-old. Though the Caravan's air bag opened, it didn't stop Bart from being ejected from the car and onto the street. He was taken to a hospital, but died 18 hours later. Most everyone — doctors, police and safety experts — agreed that if he had been wearing his seat belt, he would have survived.
The police report indicated that he was not wearing one, and an admitting nurse at the hospital also recorded that Bart was unrestrained.
Yvonne, his wife and the mother of their little girl, didn't believe it. Her insistence that her husband was wearing his seat belt would have remained nothing more than the protests of a grieving widow if a family friend and trial lawyer, Billy Edwards, hadn't stumbled on a piece of evidence.
Edwards' team of investigators descended on the damaged van, looking for clues, trying to calculate how and why Bart was thrown from the rear window. And then, on the floor of the back seat, they found a tub of auto polish. During the crash, investigators say, the can of polish opened and splattered around the van — including on the driver's seat belt.
"The polish is on a place on the belt where it had to be worn," said Edwards. If the belt was not worn, he argued, the part of the seat belt that had paint splattered on it would have been in the seat-belt retractor. If that were the case, he said, "It could not have gotten polish on it."
Yvonne sued Chrysler. Assuming Bart was wearing his seat belt, Edwards said he was thrown out of the car because of a design defect in the Gen-3 seat belts that are used in his Chrysler van — and in about half of all the Chrysler, Plymouth and Dodge vehicles sold since 1993.
The company argued that Bart was not wearing his seat belt and that the Gen-3 belts are safe. If Bart had been wearing his seat belt, Chrysler said, there would have been more bruises on his body and some stress marks on the belt. As for how the polish marks landed deep inside the coils of the belt, the company said perhaps it was contaminated at the crash scene.
The Ball Test
Many auto companies, including GM and Ford, use a "ball test" to see if their seat belts open too easily. A ball bearing is pushed against the seat belt release button — simulating, for example, an elbow or a small object that could hit the button in an accident.
To put the Gen-3 belts to the test, Primetime hired a Pennsylvania engineering firm called ARCCA, which has extensive experience investigating and testing crashes for the government, the military, industry and attorneys. ARCCA tested 15 different seat belts, including the Gen-3, from some of the most popular minivans and sedans.
After the tests, Larry Sicher, one of the AARCA engineers, showed Primetime how it works. The 2001 GM Oldsmobile Silhouette passed the test. So did the 2001 Ford Taurus. But the Chrysler Gen-3 seat belts did not. In fact, they failed every single ball test, including a 30-mm ball, the most stringent test, and the 40-mm ball, which is more widelyused.
Also, in crash tests conducted by the Candian government on theChrysler Durango, the Gen-3 seat belts released when they were most vitally needed.
"In terms of seat belt defects, this is one of the worst that I've seen, "said Clarence Ditlow, executive director for the Center for Auto Safety. The seat belt is a problem, he said, and one that may be underreported by victims because "dead men tell no tales."
Chrysler spokeswoman Ann Smith said the Gen-3 seat belts are safe and passed all federal standards. — even if they do open with the ball test. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, which has recalled other seat belts in the past, has also said it is unaware of any problem with the Gen-3.
Smith acknowledged that the Gen-3 belts did release in some of the company's crash tests on the Durango and Dakota trucks, which is why the company took the Gen-3 belts out of those vehicles. But, she said, in hundreds of other crash tests on other vehicles, the belts didn't release, so they were not replaced in those cases.
Did Chrysler Know of Problems?
But in the Moran case, Edwards had more evidence. He showed thejury an internal Chrysler document showing that when the company found that the new Gen-3 would not pass the 30-mm ball test (which the Gen-2 belts had passed), the test was "thrown out."
"The initial design of it didn't meet the ball test, so they just scrapped the ball test and rushed this into production," said the Center for Auto Safety's Ditlow.
According to the Moran trial transcripts, Chrysler engineers did use the ball tests in the early 1990s, but Smith said they never used it as a safety standard. The company changed the seat belt's design, she said, making the buckle release easier to undo to address consumer complaints that it was too difficult to open.
But the jury concluded that Bart Moran was wearing his seat belt, andthat Chrysler knew of potential problems with the Gen-3.
Chrysler already has newer model seat belts - which do pass the balltest. But the company has no plans to recall the Gen-3 and replace them with the newer models.
"I would like to see every vehicle ever manufactured with the Gen-3 buckle recalled," said Yvonne, who was awarded $6.7 million. Chrysler is appealing the verdict.
Class-action lawsuits have been filed in several states, calling for theremoval of Gen-3 seat belts.
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