A Texas judge has granted nationwide class action status to a lawsuit against DaimlerChrysler Corporation on behalf of owners of an estimated 14 million Chrysler, Dodge and Jeep vehicles.

The suit focuses on the vehicles’ seat belt buckle, known as the Gen 3, which is prone to unlatching during accidents or from around child or infant car seats in sharp turns or sudden stops.

At least three deaths have been blamed on the buckle, and four others are under investigation. The class action seeks replacement of all Gen 3 seat belt buckles in Chrysler, Dodge and Jeep vehicles, plus reimbursement for any inconvenience this may cause vehicle owners.

In his ruling, the judge said the allegations “describe a consumer crisis with safety implications that should be addressed expediently.”

Earlier, attorneys for DaimlerChrysler said this class action, if approved, would be the largest automotive national class action ever certified.

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When the suit was filed in 2000, three fatalities had been linked to Gen 3 seat belt buckle unlatchings. At least four others have come to light since and are under investigation, said attorney Billy Edwards, of The Edwards Law Firm of Corpus Christi. Co-counsel is Steven A. Kanner, of the Chicago law firm of Much, Shelist, Freed, Denenberg, Ament & Rubenstein.

“Our goal is to get DaimlerChrysler to act before this defect takes more lives,” Edwards said.

In his ruling, County Court Judge Hector De Pena noted that DaimlerChrysler has fought unsuccessfully for two years to stop the case from coming to trial. Further noting that millions of claimants are involved, he said, “It would be grossly inefficient, exorbitantly costly, a waste of judicial resources, and an invitation for conflicting results to require each class member to litigate repetitively the common issues presented in this cause.”

Edwards previously won a $US6.7 million lawsuit against DaimlerChrysler on behalf of the family of a Corpus Christi man who was killed when his Gen 3 seat belt released during a rollover accident.

“What we have seen repeatedly in the auto industry is that known problems are ignored until it costs less to change the defect than it does to pay out in lawsuits.  It’s time to change the equation,” Edwards said.

Of particular concern, Edwards said, is the tendency of the Gen 3 buckle to unlatch around infant and child car seats.  Since March 7, about one-third of those responding to a web site established to provide information about the Gen 3 have been parents complaining that the buckle holding the seat belt around an infant or car seat unlatched during a sudden stop or turn, or for no discernible reason, he said.

About 14 million DaimlerChrysler vehicles made since 1993, including all minivans, are equipped with the Gen 3 buckle.  Although DaimlerChrysler began installing a newer, safer buckle known as the Gen 4 in the front seats of minivans starting with the 2000 model year, it continues to install Gen 3 belts in the middle and rear seats, where children typically sit.

“Why in the world would DaimlerChrysler put the safer seat belt design in only one part of a vehicle in the first place, much less keep the one with the tendency to come unlatched in the back, where the kids sit?” Edwards asked.

DaimlerChrysler is well aware of the Gen 3’s unsuitability for child and infant car seats because its dealers and government agencies have received numerous complaints from consumers about this problem going back many years, Edwards said.

A Corpus Christi jury in 2000 concluded that the Gen 3 buckle was “defective as designed” and held it responsible in the 1996 death of Bart Moran. That lawsuit, which involved a new 1997 Dodge Caravan, included testimony from DaimlerChrysler engineers that crash tests made in 1996 involving the Dodge Dakota and Dodge Durango showed the Gen 3 unlatching. As a result, seat belt buckles in those two models were switched to the newer “Gen 4” design beginning with the 1998 model year, but no other models were included in the upgrade, which costs 24 cents a buckle, evidence showed.

A key piece of evidence in the trial was a demonstration of how the Gen 3 fails a standard industry test for unlatching known as the “ball safety test.” In this test, a metal ball, meant to simulate an elbow, is pressed against a seat belt buckle. If the buckle unlatches, it has failed the test.

A national television network news programme repeated this test in a story that aired on March 7. Using an independent testing laboratory, the ABC news program PrimeTime showed the Gen 3 buckle failed the test “100 percent of the time.” Buckles installed by other US car makers passed the test. The Gen 4 buckle also passes the ball test.

The Gen 3 buckle is distinguished by a button that protrudes significantly beyond the button cover, enough so that a loose object or flailing arms during a roll-over crash can unlatch it by striking it. In other buckles, the buttons are more flush with the button cover and must be depressed below the cover to unlatch.