Automotive manufacturers concede that a vehicle occupant should not survive a car accident only to burn to death in a fire caused by the undesired release of fuel. Auto safety designers charged with addressing this fundamental fire safety concern have approached the risk of post-crash fuel-fed fires by focusing on the prevention of the release of the fuel itself, the elimination of inadvertent ignition sources, and the protection of the passenger compartment itself from fire.
When it comes to gasoline, the most effective approach to preventing post-accident fires has been the use of fuel system designs that focus on the containment and management of the gas inside of the tank and fuel lines to prevent undesired release. The failure to use proper designs and available fuel management safety devices can render such systems unreasonably dangerous and defective. While gasoline release cases have long been the focus of litigation, some post-crash fuel-fed fire incidents may not involve gasoline at all, but, rather, may be the result of the release of other “fuels” that are prevalent in all cars, namely the “combustible fluids” such as brake and transmission fluid, that can also leak and be ignited in an accident.
Rollovers, Side Impacts, Filler Necks and other Fire System Defects
According to the U.S. Fire Administration, 57% of fatal vehicle fires are the result of a collision. Rollover fires are more frequent than fires in rear collisions and about half as frequent as fires in frontal collisions. Moreover, most rollover fires occur with the vehicle remains on its side or roof. Consequently, vehicle orientation needs to be considered in a fire suppression system. Also, because of the known frequency of rear impacts, tank locations close to the rear bumper or tanks at crumple points are intrinsically dangerous. Similarly, the fuel tank should not extend to the side of the vehicle. Rather, it should be cradled between the rear wheels to protect it from side impacts. Moreover, the areas immediately surrounding the fuel tank should be strengthened to provide protection from penetrating objects in a crash, and the placement of bolts, brackets, springs, mounting straps, and flanges located or placed near the fuel tank should be evaluated because of their potential to compromise the tank and cause a post-crash fire. Lastly, the potential for component attachment failures must be addressed. Many times, fires occur because fuel has leaked from areas where components have become separated or detached. Most often this refers to the filler neck, or the tube that feeds fuel into the tank. The vulnerability of the filler neck arises from its placement, the ease of which it can detach, and the weak materials often used to create this fuel system component part. However, by using safety devices like check valves automotive designers can prevent gas leaks or siphoning during a collision.
As the brief discussion above illustrates, there are many safety issues that must be tackled when automotive designers confront the safety concerns raised by the release of gasoline in the post-crash environment. However, while efforts are undertaken by most manufacturers to ensure the safe storage and management of gasoline, the same considerations are not being made with respect to the other “fuels”on board.
Don’t Forget about Combustible Fluids
In many instances, legitimate cases are being overlooked because they involve post-collision fires where no damage or compromise of the gas tank or gas lines is found. Usually, in such cases, non-gasoline fires are simply not pursued by attorneys or their experts as they do not fall within the well known theories surrounding “gasoline” fires. However, the very analysis and effort that goes into gasoline fire prevention can be equally employed to prevent post-crash fires caused by the lack of containment and management of the combustible fluids. While not flammable, combustible liquids found in the engine compartment such as brake fluid, transmission oil, engine oil and radiator fluid, can and will ignite if exposed directly to a significant heat source.
In front-end accidents, engine manifolds can shift exposing extremely hot cylinder heads to the combustible fluids which are often stored in the engine compartment. When these storage reservoirs for the combustible liquids are compromised or broken in a crash, they can release their contents onto the exposed hot surfaces caused by the shifting of the manifold and cause a fire. That being true, in frontal crashes involving fires, all of the “fuel” systems must be considered to determine if reasonable steps were taken to prevent the injury or death that may have resulted.
Vehicle manufacturers are not yet doing enough to reduce the risk of post-collision fuel-fed fires when it comes to such combustible fluids, despite awareness of the risks posed by same. Although automotive technology has improved dramatically over the past 20 years, fuel system integrity with respect to combustibles has not kept pace with other advancements, and we as counsel must remain aware of the state-of –the-art when reviewing these matters.