Product Defects

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Apart from poorly-designed stepwells and even worse-designed handrails, there seem to be few patterns regarding product defects. Stepwell problems are particularly common in vehicle “conversions” — minibuses converted to passenger transportation vehicles built on truck chassis. The problems their often-non-existent or deficient stepwells or handrails create are often compounded by both their high floors and the lack of passenger assistance — the latter less often the industry standard in modes that deploy such types of vehicles. Some modes, like airport shuttles, are practically devoid of regulatory requirements other than a handful of generic Federal requirements (e.g., for the conduct of pre- and post-trip inspection check-outs) and local regulations that are largely administrative in nature (often related to the hiring process).

Some defects — like the attachment of seats and securement devices to the vehicle floor counter to regulatory requirements for anchorage strength — are extremely latent, and only become noticeable when a catastrophic accident occurs, often under extreme circumstances (like the Hurricane Rita motorcoach fire/explosion). Further, improvements in certain areas (e.g., clean-burning engines) result in trade-offs in other areas (e.g., because the engines burn hotter, and as less-costly materials like plastic hub caps are increasingly used), the number of bus fires has increased. Innovations like fire-retardant seat foam and anti-explosive fuel tank technology have been almost completely ignored, despite their relatively small costs. Occasionally, the “conversion” is a moving land mine: In one catastrophic accident, a group of boosters built a deck on top of a high-floor, mothball-fleet school bus – and allowed passengers to ride on it standing up. Cruising beneath a 15-foot-high bridge, when the “duck man” was not present, one of the newer, more intoxicated passengers was nearly beheaded.

Product defect cases are usually challenging, messy, complex and costly: Manufacturers and their dealers blame the problem on the purchaser’s poor maintenance, and the older the vehicle gets, the harder it may sometimes be to sort out genuine causation. Further, the understanding of both product defects and maintenance often lie “above the heads” of jurors and judges alike, and this blur is often compounded by other negligence in management and operations. Evidence is often sketchy and/or underprovided: Most plaintiffs’ attorneys fail to obtain “options lists” in purchasing documents, while handwritten notations by mechanics are more difficult to read than that of medical prescriptions, and computerized maintenance reports provide virtually no details, and often not even decent clues.

front of bus lodged on driveway entrance

bus lodged angle of aproach

bus tow hooks from fron

Between product defects and negligence maintenance lies a middle zone of deterioration, where factors like rust (school bus frame members have been known to virtually rust away, leaving only the thin sidewalls to hold up the roof) and normal wear and tear over the years (more severe on vehicles with spring suspension systems) render a vehicle no longer “street-worthy.” Yet few regulations require their removal from service.

Finally, some types of vehicles, like stretch limousines, “fly almost completely beneath the regulatory radar:” Their “conversion” doubles or triples the vehicle’s mass, yet there are no requirements for increasing brake system size and performance. Yet because stretch limousines generally do not follow the instructions of “conversion” or “incomplete-vehicle” manuals available from OEMs for the conversion of vans and minibuses, there are few guidelines. And because almost no “converter” of such vehicles makes the appropriate safety-related changes, it is hard to make a case that an industry standard of any kind even exists, even when the defects are outrageous in their ignorance and risk.