Almost six years after 6-year-old Diana Zhang was killed by an airbag deploying in a Volvo in a low-speed crash, a jury in U.S. District Court in Cleveland has found the Swedish automaker was not responsible for her death.
Zhang was not wearing a seat belt and was in the front seat of a 1993 Volvo 850 GLT when her mother, Ke-Ming Li Zhang, struck the rear of a 1986 Volks-wagen Golf. The Volvo's speed was estimated at between 5 mph and slightly more than 7 mph, according to testimony before Judge Patricia Anne Gaughan.
Diana Zhang's death two days later, on April 24, 1993, resulted in a special crash investigation by the National Highway Traffic Safety Admin-istration.
It also bolstered the emerging fears of some safety researchers about the potential for airbags to harm children or other small people, particularly those who were not properly restrained.
Zhang is the only person killed by an airbag in a Volvo, said Michael Thomas, the deputy general counsel for Vol-vo Cars of North America Inc.
Had the airbag not deployed, Diana would have been injured but probably would have survived, expert witnesses on both sides agreed.
WAS AIRBAG DEFECTIVE?
The Zhangs' lawyer, James Lowe, argued Volvo was at fault because it allowed its airbags to fire at 8 mph, which was several miles an hour below what other automakers use.
He also presented witnesses who testified that their studies of the crash showed the system was defective because the bag on the Zhang Volvo fired below that minimum or 'no-fire' speed.
'I like airbags ... but there is no reason for airbags to kill people,' said William Broadhead, a safety consultant from Santa Barbara, Calif., testifying for the Zhangs.
Volvo's expert witnesses acknowledged the no-fire speed on the 850 was lower than what other automakers use, but they argued that serious or fatal injuries may occur at very low speeds.
Volvo also contended there was no defect in the system. Volvo witness Dennis Guenther, a professor of mechanical engineering at Ohio State University, also testified that the airbag triggering mechanism was taken from the Zhangs' car, placed in another Volvo 850 and showed no defect in three crash tests conducted later in the presence of Zhang's lawyer.
NO EVIDENCE OF A DEFECT
'Tragically, this little girl lost her life because she wasn't wearing a seat belt,' said Cleveland lawyer Hugh Bode, who represented Volvo.
The Zhangs were asking at least $1.5 million during the trial, which began Feb. 22. On March 1, after deliberating for the afternoon, the jury found in favor of Volvo.
Jury foreman Karen Foote later explained that the jury found no evidence of a defect in the airbag system nor did the jurors think it was set to deploy at too low a speed.
She said the jurors felt that the overall benefits of the 850's system outweighed the danger to unbelted occupants.