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Conversion vans: woodsheds on wheels.

To meet the exploding demand for roomy, comfortable transportation, van manufacturers and converters often sacrifice safety.

The customer cared about safety. Before she purchased her minivan, she researched carefully. She checked Consumer Reports. She got information about government crash tests. She test-drove every minivan on the market and interviewed the salespeople about safety features. Carefully, she chose a minivan, and went to the dealership to purchase it.

The salesman steered her toward what he described as a deluxe version of the van, with captain's chairs. The van bore the manufacturer's label touting its quality engineering, but it had been "improved" by a local van conversion company.

When the van was struck head-on at moderate speed in California several years later, it became clear that the quality engineering guarantee did not extend to the "upgraded" components. The pedestals on which the captain's chairs sat, and to which the seat belts were anchored, bent drastically. The chairs came completely off their tracks.

As a result of the seat failures and because of a sharp edge in the seat, both front seat belts were severed. Both front occupants, left completely unrestrained, suffered severe injuries.(1)

In a South Carolina case involving a conversion van, two children were asleep on a "travel bed" installed in the rear of the van when it rolled over. The fiberglass roof separated from the van, and both children were ejected and killed.(2)

How do such tragic failures occur? The answer lies in the process of manufacturing--and certifying--conversion vans.

"Conversion vans" are passenger vans made in part by major automobile manufacturers but modified or completed by a van conversion company. You probably have seen these vehicles, and you may be one of the millions of Americans who own one. Typically, these vehicles have been equipped with trim "upgrades," such as captain's chairs, paneling, raised roofs, sofa chairs, and even television sets, foldout beds, kitchens, and bathrooms. In many instances, while these luxuries are being added, something is being taken away: the very basic vehicle safety features we have come to take for granted.

America's interest in recreational vehicles (RVs) soared in the 1960s and early 1970s, plummeted during the energy crisis of the 1970s, and rebounded vigorously in the 1980s once gasoline prices receded. Sales of smaller and more fuel-efficient RVs, in the form of converted vans, flourished. To meet the growing consumer demand, literally thousands of new van conversion companies joined the ranks of RV "manufacturing." They bought vans, spruced them up in simple garages and warehouses, and resold them at a hefty profit.

The major manufacturers saw this skyrocketing market as an opportunity to expand the sales of their vans, including the new minivans that were introduced in the mid-1980s.

To capitalize on this phenomenon, the major American automobile makers each established a van conversion program. Through these programs, the major manufacturers actively market their vans as completed by approved converters.

In a typical conversion or "specialty vehicle" program, the manufacturer contracts with approved converters, who agree to receive a minimum number of vehicles per year. The vehicles are shipped, usually without seats or interior trim, to the converter. The converter adds components, certifies safety standard compliance, and markets the vans to dealerships. The dealership pays the manufacturer for the incomplete vehicle under its franchise agreement and pays the converter for the conversion.

Typically, title to the vehicle passes directly from the manufacturer to the dealership, with the converter holding and converting the vehicles under a bailment agreement. The manufacturer provides its dealerships with lists of approved converters, along with the converters' marketing materials.

A manufacturer can have dozens of approved converters in its bailment program. They are selected based on their ability to move merchandise. The manufacturer conducts no review of the conversion design, testing, or manufacturing process.

Not all conversions are completed through a bailment program. Sometimes a dealership will buy a base vehicle and provide it to a converter for alteration, or a converter will buy vehicles itself for conversion and resale.

In any event, the result is that a consumer buys a major-label vehicle new from a major-label dealership but often ends up with minor-label safety engineering and testing. This can mean no engineering or testing at all for important safety systems.

The resulting lack of safety and quality control is exacerbated by the cottage industry of conversion parts suppliers, which historically has included companies that lack sophistication in automobile product manufacturing. The seat failure case discussed previously includes as a defendant an office chair manufacturer that got into the automotive seating business by tearing down other car seats and imitating the design--without the help of engineers, much less automotive engineers.

The corporate designee of the pedestal manufacturer testified that the pedestal was purposely designed to bend in an accident, despite the fact that the seat belt is anchored to the pedestal to protect the occupant's pelvis. The result is that the occupant's head strikes the vehicle interior, so that crash forces are transferred from the pelvis to the head, exactly the opposite of the restraint approach taken by the mainstream industry.

Not all recreational vehicle and conversion companies fit the mold described here. Some are conscientious. However, the nature of the industry is such that quality has not been well controlled.

The conversion process

It has been said that the two things you do not want to see being made are sausage and legislation Add conversion vans to the list. One of the authors recently toured a conversion company's manufacturing facility. The building--really a large shed--housed three vehicles in various stages of conversion. In the corner was the sheet metal shell of a stock van body, with the side impact protection beams and roof supports visible. These had been cut off the vehicle and would be sold as scrap.(3)

This shell had just been cut off the first van. The original floor still sat on the chassis, but the reinforced seat belt and heavy-duty seat anchors had been covered with plywood. As part of the conversion, the seats and belts would be anchored to the new plywood floor and bolted to the floor pan sheet metal with no reinforcement.

Conversion of the second van had progressed further. A particleboard and plywood shell had been assembled with screws and nails and bolted onto the chassis. A fiberglass roof was being screwed onto the plywood. One could imagine the splinters flying should this vehicle ever be subjected to crash testing.

No clue of this interior construction was visible on the third van. Aluminum sheeting and trim, enamel paint, striping, and detail work had transformed this woodshed on wheels into a finished vehicle. Interior carpeting, leather seating, and walnut cabinetry completed the facade.

When asked about safety testing and certification, the converter stared blankly. He was not familiar with such things.

Fatal flaws

In the California seat failure case and at least one other case of which the authors are aware,(4) the seating systems failed completely in collisions no worse than the 35 mph frontal barrier tests performed by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) in its New Car Assessment Program.

In both cases, the seat pedestals bent significantly forward and upward. In both cases, the seat belts were anchored to these pedestals, so the bending allowed the occupants to come forward toward hard vehicle interior components. In both cases, the seat tracks on the pedestal released, allowing the seats to slide forward. In one case, the forward movement of the seats into the belts caused the belts to break. The results: fatality, paralysis, or other serious injury to four occupants.

In both cases, discovery showed that although some of the components had been individually tested, the entire seating and restraint systems had never been tested as a whole.

In both cases, testing during litigation showed that the systems failed minimum federal safety standards for seats and seat belt anchorages.

In both cases, conversion company personnel displayed a gross lack of knowledge regarding their obligations under Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards.

When stock vans leave the manufacturer on their way to be converted, they have the original roofs with original support structures intact. Conversion companies cut off these roofs and support structures and install raised roofs, usually constructed of fiberglass and attached with screws. Screws have not been used by major manufacturers to attach roofs to stock vehicles since 1914.(5)

The purpose of the raised roof is to allow additional head room for passengers so that they can stand and walk around inside the conversion van. But these converted roofs do little to protect the occupants in a rollover accident, as illustrated by the South Carolina case. In fact, the roofs of many conversion vans serve as little more than an umbrella.

In the South Carolina case, the jury found General Motors Co. negligent. GM executives admitted using financial--not engineering--criteria in selecting conversion companies for GM's program. The company admitted that it never evaluated the crashworthiness of roof modifications by its approved converters or whether the fiberglass roof posed any significant injury risks during a rollover. GM also acknowledged that it did not do any crash testing on the remodeled fiberglass roof and did not know if the converters conducted any.(6)

Government's role

Every passenger vehicle sold in the United States bears a label, required by law, certifying full compliance with Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards (FMVSS).(7) A van conversion company is required to put this label in place, as an "alterer" or "final stage manufacturer," depending on the nature and extent of the modification.(8) The major manufacturer providing an incomplete vehicle is required to supply the converter with an "incomplete vehicle document" describing the vehicle's safety standard compliance status and indicating the safety standards for which the final stage manufacturer must take responsibility.(9) Despite this system, however, the conversion process can introduce dangers and safety standard noncompliance.

NHTSA discovered this when it investigated conversion van compliance with federal safety standards governing seats and seat belt anchorages. In 1989, the agency sent information requests to a sampling of converters, seeking their test data in support of compliance with FMVSS 207 and 210, which provide minimum strength requirements for seats and seat belt attachments. These regulations specify a test whereby the seat and seat belts are pulled simultaneously to see whether they can successfully withstand forces like those that would be generated in an accident. The manufacturer--or in the case of a conversion van, the converter--must certify that the seat and restraint systems can withstand this test.

The government found that converters were not testing these systems. Rather, they were relying on tests conducted by manufacturers of each individual component--the seat, seat track, and seat pedestal. NHTSA wrote to the manufacturers warning of the dangers of such testing, cautioning that test results for individual components may not be adequate for certifying a completed system as a whole.(10)

NHTSA then took two steps. First, it conducted compliance tests of selected conversion vans, most of which resulted in FMVSS 207 and/or 210 failures. This led to numerous vehicle recalls.(11)

Second, it worked with the Recreational Vehicle Industry Association (RVIA) to alert converters to the dangers of piecemeal testing. In 1991, RVIA warned members about NHTSA's test results in which some pedestal seats "bent all the way forward so as to possibly endanger the occupants when coming into contact with rigid parts of the vehicle." It echoed NHTSA's warning about piecemeal testing and suggested that converters consider voluntary recalls.(12)

Some converters heeded this advice for future models, but most did not examine their prior models for compliance or recall.

Parties

Depending on the jurisdiction and the facts of the case, you should consider the following parties as potential defendants. In most jurisdictions, all parties in the chain of commerce are legally responsible for their product under the law of strict products liability. Consider claims for strict liability and negligence, including failure-to-warn aspects of both claims. Legal research within the jurisdiction is needed on issues including foreseeable product modification and liability of component part suppliers.

The major manafacturer. The automaker may be liable, even if the defective components were not installed until after the vehicle left the plant. Was the manufacturer the owner of the vehicle at the time of the conversion? If not, did the manufacturer know, by reason of providing an incomplete vehicle or by arrangements it had made with the converter, that the vehicle would be converted? Did it take any steps to ensure the safety of the product, knowing that the vehicle would be sold under the manufacturer's label by the manufacturer's dealer?

Did the vehicle manufacturer take any steps to inform or warn the consumer about the substantial dangers that conversion vans can pose, or even of the fact that the major manufacturer was not involved in the engineering of significant safety components?

Worse yet, did the manufacturer know of problems with the van conversion company's design or testing methods, or of prior product failures? Did it take steps to investigate the converter, its engineering, its manufacturing processes, its suppliers, and its certification process?

Did the manufacturer make any effort to inform the consumer in any way about the conversion, or did it tout the safety of the entire vehicle? Did the manufacturer take the steps it takes with other parts and services suppliers to ensure its final product was safe?

The converter. What steps did it take to ensure safety? Did it employ or contract with design or testing engineers? Did it conduct any safety testing or engineering analyses? Did the converter take steps to learn about safe vehicle design and federal safety requirements? Did it heed or ignore advisories of the government and industry associations?

What steps did the converter take to investigate its parts suppliers? What steps did it take to ensure that its assembled systems were safe and complied with safety standards? What efforts were made to advise the consumer of any limitations in the safety features of the converted van compared to a stock van?

Parts suppliers. What kind of engineering and testing did parts suppliers employ? What representations did they make to the converters? Did their components fail in the crash?

Van conversion safety has already improved. The government's compliance testing in the early 1990s promoted greater awareness of some of the dangers. Certain safety standards previously not applicable to vans became applicable in the 1990s, further heightening awareness in the industry of the need for expert consultation in design and testing.

Many van converters now purchase entire seating systems fully tested for FMVSS compliance in the type of van in which they will be installed. The industry has consolidated; there are far fewer converters now than there were in 1990. More vans are converted by the larger--and, presumably, more sophisticated and conscientious--conversion companies.

However, there are still many older conversion vans on the road. Given the government's system of self-certification and limited funds for compliance testing and enforcement, quality control is still variable. And van conversion companies continue to favor fiberglass roofs, despite their lack of crashworthiness.

Recent litigation has raised awareness of these issues among the major automobile manufacturers. Whether they will take responsibility to police this aspect of their vehicle sales remain to be seen.

Notes

(1.) Based on a case pending in Los Angeles. Contact the authors for details.

(2.) Wright v. General Motors, No. 94-CP-21-001092 (S.C., Florence County Cir. Ct. July 19,1996).

(3.) In most of the conversions of which the authors are aware, the body was left mostly intact except for the roof.

(4.) Shaver v. Ford Motor Co., No. 197-CC-0631 (Mo., Greene County Cir. Ct. filed Feb. 20,1997). For more information, contact Robert M.N. Palmer and William Petrus, Springfield, Missouri.

(5.) James R. Hubbard & Edward M. Ricci, Detroit's Deception: Defective Conversion Vans, TRIAL, Feb. 1997, at 32 (citing Anthony J. Yanik, The First 100 Years of Transportation Safety: Part I, AUTOMOTIVE ENGINEERING, Jan. 1996.) The Hubbard and Ricci article includes an excellent discussion of conversion roof issues and of Wright v. General Motors.

(6.) Id.

(7.) 49 C.F.R. [subsections] 567.4(g)(5), 567.5(c)(7)(iii) (1999).

(8.) Id. at [subsections] 568.6, 568.8.

(9.) Id. at [sections] 68.4.

(10.) See, e.g., Letter from NHTSA Office of Vehicle Safety Compliance, NHTSA Docket IR 636-639 (Oct. 9, 1990) (on file with authors).

(11.) See, e.g., NHTSA Dockets 91V-072 (May 16, 1991), 91V-144 (Sept. 16, 1991), 91V-164 (Oct. 18, 1991) (on file with authors).

(12.) Memorandum from Jerome C. Loftus, Recreational Vehicle Industry Association (RVIA) General Counsel, to RVIA Members (Jan. 29, 1991) (on file with authors).

RELATED ARTICLE: Prepare your auto case with documents from the ATLA Exchange

The documents listed below and many others on issues in motor vehicle products liability litigation are available from the ATLA Exchange. For more information, visit the Exchange Web site at http://exchange.atla.org, or contact the Exchange by phone at (800) 344-3023 or by fax at (202) 337-0977.

Air bags

Bernard v. Ford Motor Co. Plaintiffs' trial brief and a transcript of defendant's mechanical expert's testimony in a case in which plaintiffs alleged that defendant should have warned that an air bag would cause injury if used without a seat belt. (No. 2827; not available on disk.)

Bresnahan v. Chrysler Corp. The parties' appellate court briefs and defendant's petition for review and certification to the California Supreme Court in a case holding that a plaintiff could proceed with a defective air bag claim under the consumer-expectation test. (No. 2409.)

Coles v. Honda Motor Co. The parties' trial memoranda on federal preemption in a case alleging a car had been defectively designed in that it did not have an air bag. (No. 1425.)

Cruze v. Ford Motor Co. Plaintiff's complaint and a partial transcript of plaintiffs opening statement in a case alleging that improperly placed sensors caused delayed air bag deployment. (No. 3415.)

Drattel v. Toyota Motor Corp. The parties' intermediate appellate court briefs in a case holding that the National Traffic and Motor Vehicle Safety Act (NTMVSA) does not preempt state law claims for failure to equip a car with an air bag. (No. 3131.)

Minton v. Honda of America Manufacturing, Inc. Plaintiffs' appellate briefs in a case holding the NTMVSA does not preclude evidence that a car was defective because it lacked an air bag. (No. 3155.)

Nelson v. FordMotor Co. The parties' appellate court briefs in a case holding that the NTMVSA does not preempt a state tort law claim for lack of air bags. (No. 2673.)

Tebbetts v. Ford Motor Co. The parties' state high court briefs and briefs supporting and opposing U.S. Supreme Court review and an amicus brief supporting review in a case holding the NTMVSA does not preempt a claim for lack of air bags. (No. 2547.)

Wilson v. Pleasant. Plaintiffs' appellate briefs, an amicus curiae brief, and defendant's briefs responding to amicus curiae and opposing state supreme court review in a case holding that the NTMVSA does not preempt a claim for lack of air bags. (No. 2657.)

Fuel tanks

Hearing on DOT/GM Pickup Truck Settlement Before Subcommittee on Labor of the Senate Committee on Labor and Human Resources. Testimony from accident victims, experts, and consumer groups before a Senate hearing called after the U.S. Department of Transportation announced it had reached a settlement with General Motors Corp. concerning the company's pickup trucks equipped with sidesaddle fuel tanks. The settlement did not include a recall of the trucks. (No. PL-550.)

Martin v. Valley Indus. Plaintiff's complaint, trial court brief on the recoverability of damages for loss of enjoyment of life, and memorandum in support of a motion to compel production in a case alleging that the position of a car's fuel tank gave it a propensity to explode in a rear-end collision. Plaintiff claimed the car manufacturer and dealer had failed to instruct consumers about the proper installation of a trailer hitch and warn of the explosion hazard posed by a hitch piercing the fuel tank. (No. PL-388.)

Meenach v. General Motors Corp. The court's opinion and order on whether a former GM employee could testify for plaintiff, despite an out-of-state court's injunction against the testimony, in a case alleging the fuel tank on a 1990 Cadillac Seville was defective. (No. EX-0388.)

Stephens v. General Motors Corp. Petition for a writ of mandate and/or prohibition in a case alleging that the design of a fuel tank and fuel system in a Chevrolet truck made the vehicle unreasonably dangerous, preliminary opposition of real party in interest and respondent's opposition to the petition, and petitioner's memorandum of points and authorities in response to the opposition. (Nos. EX-0287, EX-0314, EX317, and EX-0318.)

Worden v. General .Motors Corp. Plaintiffs' summary judgment memoranda arguing an exception to Washington's general ban on joint and several liability applied because hazardous substances were involved in the alleged improper placement of a sidesaddle fuel tank. Also available are the court's order granting the motion and plaintiffs' appellate brief and the trial and appellate courts' orders on defendant's motion for a protective order barring plaintiffs from calling defendant's former employee as an expert witness. (No. 2193.)

Stuart A. Ollanik and Carrie R. Frank are partners in Gilbert, Frank, Ollanik, & Komyatte in Arvada, Colorado. [C] 2000, Gilbert, Frank, Ollanik & Komyatte.
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Author:Frank, Carrie R.
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Date:Jan 1, 2000
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