5 On Your Side

Reclining Vehicle Passengers, Seat Belts Potentially Dangerous

Posted January 12, 2006 8:04 a.m. EST

— Grueling rehabilitation is Tami Martin's only chance of ever walking again.

Six years ago, she was paralyzed in a car accident because she wore her seat belt.

"I had my seatbelt on, reclined all the way-- taking a nap sleeping, thinking I was safe, and the next thing I knew, I was in the hospital," Martin said.

Martin's mother was driving a Ford minivan at just 30 mph when she rear-ended another car. Martin was in the front passenger seat.

In the accident, she slid under the seat belt. The impact went to her stomach and lower back and the top half of her body bent over the belt. So, with the seat reclined, the belt actually worked against her.

Martin sued Ford, claiming the automaker knew it was dangerous for passengers to ride in a reclined position, but did not adequately warn consumers. Ford claimed Martin was at fault, saying most people are aware of the danger.

But the night before the trial, Ford aired a commercial for its truck in which a passenger wearing his seatbelt has his seat reclined and his feet on the dashboard.

Martin's lawyers brought up the advertisement in court, causing Ford to pull the commercial off the air. The jury awarded Martin $17 million.

Then, Martin made Ford a startling offer -- to return half of the money that she had received.

Martin was willing to give up millions of dollars if Ford would put stickers in every vehicle warning passengers about the dangers of reclining seats while wearing seatbelts.

Instead, Ford planned to appeal the jury's verdict.

The automaker released a statement saying it believed the jury's finding was "incorrect" and expect that the verdict would be "reversed."

But of course, it is not just Ford vehicles where the potential danger exists. The same danger can exist in any vehicle if the seats recline.

"I want car manufacturers to step up to the plate and warn people of the dangers," Martin said. "Because you can be a paraplegic, a quadriplegic, or dead, if you recline your seat like I did, thinking you are comfortable."

Ford's motion for a new trial was denied. The company is now taking its case to the United States Circuit Court of Appeals.