Explosive Cases Involving Defective Fuel Systems.

Trial lawyers handling fuel-fed fire cases stemming from vehicle collisions may find success for clients by arguing that defective fuel systems led to death or serious injury.

Every day, the lives of countless Americans and their families are tragically shattered by vehicle collisions that should have been moderate, survivable accidents of life. Instead, these crashes leave behind catastrophic injuries and death.

Attorneys working in the field of automotive products liability and crashworthiness can sometimes trace these disasters to questionable fuel system integrity. The real tragedy is that the automotive industry is often aware of dangers that can lead to fiery explosions, but its leaders make calculated business decisions that put profits ahead of safety.

In the early 1970s, General Motors Corp. (GM) engineers proposed a standard that "fuel leaks should not occur in collisions which produce occupant impact forces below the level that would cause a fatality in the absence of fire."(1) In other words, GM recognized that manufacturers have a duty to design vehicles so that people will not get burned in survivable collisions.

This article examines in-cab and sidesaddle fuel tank design and potential sources of ignition.

Case No. 1. Peter Sharon, 40, and Christian Childers, 17, worked for the timber-frame business of Christian's father. On July 23, 1993, they were in a 1972 Chevrolet flatbed truck, carrying a load of timber to Owensboro, Kentucky, to construct a timber-framed house.

As the vehicle and its load traveled south on Interstate 71, the right rear tire blew out and the truck overturned. Both Peter and Christian were killed after the truck erupted in flames.

Case No. 2. Brandon Garner, 26, was on his way to work early on the morning of August 10, 1995. He routinely made the trip on Interstate 55 from eastern Arkansas and crossed the "old bridge" over the Mississippi River into Memphis, Tennessee, in his 1972 Chevrolet C-10 step-side pickup truck.

As he came to the bridge that morning, the traffic ahead of him stopped suddenly. Rather than rear-end the vehicles in front of him, he steered his truck to the right and struck the bridge wall. The pickup rolled over onto the driver's side and caught fire, killing Brandon.

These three men were the victims of unreasonable hazards due to the design of the fuel systems in their pickup trucks.

Before the 1973 model year, the "Big Three" U.S.

automakers (Ford, Chrysler, and General Motors) adhered to a double standard for automobiles and pickup trucks with respect to fuel tank integrity. In automobiles, no part of the fuel system was permitted to contact or pass through the passenger compartment. In automobiles, the fuel filler pipe and gas cap were recessed and covered by a flap door.

By contrast, the Big Three chose a different design for pickup truck fuel systems. In these trucks, the fuel filler pipe protruded several inches above the sheet metal behind the door. The entire fuel storage system (including tank, filler pipe, and fuel lines) was housed behind the driver's seat. This design became known as the "in-cab" fuel tank.

For many years, American truck manufacturers knew of the dangers inherent in this in-cab design. There was no justification, and certainly no necessity, for the double standard regarding fuel system integrity between cars and pickup trucks--especially considering that the original pickup was merely a modification of a standard passenger car. In fact, the first pickup trucks were built on a passenger car chassis.

Early examples of this design include the 1917 Ford Model T and the 1926 Chevrolet Roadster pickup. The Model T featured an add-on pickup bed, and the Roadster simply had a wooden bed inserted into the trunk.(2) Because these pickup trucks were built on a car chassis, the fuel tank was likewise located outside the passenger compartment. For reasons of cost and convenience, however, the fuel tank in pickup trucks was moved into the passenger compartment beginning in 1949.

Peter, Christian, and Brandon paid the ultimate price for this decision. Their trucks should have been recalled or removed from America's highways many years earlier. Countless trucks with the same defects are still on the highways today. A 1971 study conducted for the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) proclaimed that The "particularly hazardous type of fuel system damage" described in 1971 is precisely what occurred, more than 20 years later, in the two cases described above.

After the blowout on Christian's pickup truck, the truck swerved and then overturned. The protruding gas cap and filler neck were scraped off, and the fuel tank ignited. The cab was consumed by fire, and both Peter and Christian were burned alive. Neither man suffered any other lifethreatening injuries from the crash.

Brandon Garner's death was similarly tragic and preventable.

After his 1972 Chevrolet pickup rolled over, it skidded along the bridge on the driver's side. Just as the 1971 DOT document had forewarned, the metal components slid on the pavement and ripped off the filler neck, leaving a massive gasoline spill from the fuel tank. The friction and sparks of the metal components on the pavement ignited the fuel.

Since the fuel tank was located inside the occupant compartment, Brandon's chances for survival were slim. Despite the fact that his cab was engulfed in flames, he did all he could to survive this catastrophe. He kicked out the windshield and ran from the truck.

Witnesses described him as a "human fireball." Despite the heroic efforts of Brandon and rescue personnel, he suffered burns over 85 percent of his body. He died 10 days later. The cause of death was burn-related multiple organ failure. Like Peter and Christian, Brandon suffered no other life-threatening injuries.

These are not isolated incidents. Discovery responses in Brandon's case(4) identified some 84 lawsuits and 12 nonlawsuit complaints against General Motors alleging similar defects.

In 1973, Ford, Chrysler, and General Motors redesigned their pickup truck fuel system layout, moving the tank out of the passenger compartment. This new design coincided with the effective date of the proposed gas tank safety standard by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA)--then known as the National Highway Safety Bureau. The standard sought to require that all vehicles be capable of withstanding front and rear barrier crashes of 30 mph and that they also demonstrate fuel system integrity during a rollover.(5) Pickup trucks with fuel tanks located in the passenger compartment are still traversing America's highways. A pickup truck of this vintage was prominently displayed in the recent film The Horse Whisperer.

Sidesaddle fuel tanks After removing the gas tank from the cab, Ford and Chrysler chose to place them under the pickup chassis inside a set of heavy steel frame rails. In contrast, GM pickups made between 1973 and 1987 featured the tank mounted like a saddlebag outside the frame. This saddlebag, or sidesaddle, design has led to more than 100 lawsuits against General Motors. An estimated 300 people have died as a result of injuries received in collisions involving burning gas tanks in these models.(6) Case No. 3. Annette Dobbs was a passenger in a GMC 1986 pickup truck being driven on a two-lane road in Wright County, Missouri. On March 11, 1989, the vehicle slid off the slick road and into a tree. The truck burst into flames, and Annette was burned over 50 percent of her body. The driver and another passenger were burned to death.

Case No. 4. Henno Gribat was driving his 1973 GM pickup truck on June 11, 1994. It was suddenly struck by another vehicle that had crossed the center line of the two-lane road in Kankakee County, Illinois. The pickup immediately burst into flames that shot 40 feet into the air. Henno lived about 24 hours before dying from severe burns.

Cases 3 and 4 have a common element. They resulted from the sidesaddle design GM elected to use on its pickup trucks after the company was forced to take the gasoline tanks out of the in-cab position.

No other vehicle has received as much criticism since the Ford Pinto. Protecting the gasoline tank with only thin metal sheeting on the side of the vehicle is no protection at all. Any cost or functional benefit of that design is far outweighed by the extreme safety hazard.

Highway statistics Statistics from NHTSA confirm that vehicle fires are still a major problem in this country. The agency's recent research shows that * 228,000 people were involved in vehicle fires between 1979 and 1986, an average of 29,000 a year; * 88 percent of the survivors of crashes in which a post-collision fire occurred would have been less seriously injured if the vehicle fire had been prevented; * nearly all of survivors of post-collision fires (99 percent) had burn injuries that were more severe than their impact-induced injuries; and, * 26 percent of people whose deaths were caused by bums would have had no, or only minor, injuries if those people had not been burned.(7) Other studies have estimated deaths from vehicle fires at anywhere between 450 and 3,500 each year.(8) How do these fires start? One need only look to the fuel system itself.

Most modern vehicles now have fuel-injected engines. As a result, the fuel system consists of the tank, three fuel lines, fuel pump(s), fuel line connectors, a filler pipe, and a cap. Each component is essential for the vehicle's overall fuel system integrity. The three fuel lines include a feed or supply line that sends gasoline to the engine, a return line that returns unused gasoline to the fuel tank, and a vapor line. Most vehicles have one or more in-tank electric fuel pumps.

Fuel lines. Fuel-injected engines require pressure in fuel lines that is sometimes as high as 60 pounds per square inch. Fuel can escape if there is a break or weakening in the line. This failure can occur at a connector or in a location that is very difficult to see on inspection. These systems include plastic, neoprene (robber), steel, or steel-braided lines. The location and composition of the fuel line are critical to the overall fuel system integrity of the vehicle.

Fuel pump. Most fuel-injected engines have electric fuel pumps located inside the fuel tank. It is critical that these pumps shut off in the event of a collision. If they do not, they continue to pump gasoline through the system. Different types of mechanisms are used to shut off the fuel pump in a collision, but many post-collision fires have been traced to pumps with faulty shutoff valves.

Siphoning. Gasoline may siphon from a fuel tank after a collision, sparking a potentially deadly fire. This happens the same way gas is siphoned from the tank through a rubber hose. Gas can siphon from the fuel system quickly--about three-quarters of a gallon a minute.

Manufacturers have long known of the danger of fuel siphoning, yet many fail to incorporate inexpensive antisiphoning devices in their fuel systems, leaving many drivers and their passengers vulnerable.

It is difficult to understand how vehicles with defective fuel systems remain on the road today, given the potentially tragic consequences that drivers and passengers could suffer when involved in a collision. As trial lawyers, we must do our best to ensure that manufacturers are held accountable for their past mistakes.

Notes (1.) NATIONAL HIGHWAY TRAFFIC SAFETY ADMIN., ENGINEERING ANALYSIS REPORT & INITIAL DECISION THAT SUBJECT VEHICLES CONTAIN A SAFETY-RELATED DEFECT, EA92-041, at 41 (Oct. 17, 1994) (quoting a report by GM engineers Ronald E. Elwell, Jim Steger, and Paul Judson).

(2.) Marc Flatow, The In-Cab Fuel Tank: An Avoidable Hazard, TRIAL, Nov. 1981, at 82 (citing JAMES K. WAGNER, FORD TRUCKS SINCE 1905 (1978) and GEORGE H. DAMMONN, SIXTY YEARS OF CHEVROLET (1972)).

(3.) NEVA B. JOHNSON, AN ASSESSMENT OF AUTOMOBILE FUEL SYSTEM FIRE HAZARDS (1971) (prepared by Dynamic Science for U.S. Dep't of Transp., National Highway Traffic Safety Admin.).

(4.) Hartsfield v. General Motors, No. J-C-96-81 (E.D. Ark. filed Mar. 18, 1996).

(5.) National Highway Safety Bureau, Proposed Standard, Docket 70-20, Notice 1 (Aug. 29, 1970); see Fuel System Integrity, 49 C.F.R.

[sections] 571.301 (Sept. 6, 1976).

(6.) Thomas McCarroll, Was GM Reckless? TIME, Nov. 30, 1992, at 61.

(7.) SUSAN C. PARTYKA, NATIONAL HIGHWAY TRAFFIC SAFETY ADMIN., FIRES AND BURNS IN TOWED LIGHT VEHICLE CRASHES 1-4 (1992).

(8.) GENERAL MOTORS CORP., SAFETY RESEARCH & DEV. LAB., GENERAL MOTORS AND FUEL SYSTEM COLLISION FIRES, Envtl. Activities Pub. No.

A-3177 (1974).

Robert Langdon practices law in Lexington, Missouri. Peter Perlman, a former ATLA president, practices law in Lexington, Kentucky.

Explosive Cases Involving Defective Fuel Systems. 1

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