When the news broke recently that Elkhart-based bus manufacturer Forest River, Inc. had been fined by the U.S. Department of Transportation for failure to report defects and announce safety recalls, it caught many by surprise. Many churches, sports teams, tour operators, and senior centers own and operate a bus or fleet of buses in order to transport large groups of people to various events. Maybe you’ve taken such a trip. But are you certain the vehicle you’ve been riding in is safe?
The Problem – And the Danger
Commercial multi-passenger vehicles are tested and certified to carry a specific weight limit; exceeding that limit can create an environment in which the tires fail, causing a loss of control and rollover. Starcraft, the subsidiary of Forest River that manufactures several popular bus models, altered the base chassis of their buses by extending the length of the chassis, adding seats, and adding cargo space. These alterations served to increase the weight of the vehicle and negate the safe weight limits for which the original chassis was certified.
The inherent dangers to an overloaded bus came to light in 2009 when members of a Louisiana church group were involved in an accident caused by a fully-loaded Starcraft bus that exceeded safe weight limits. The combined weight of passengers, luggage, and fuel put stress on the tires, causing a tire failure. The resulting loss of control due to the blown tire caused the bus to overturn and roll, injuring and/or killing several in the church group.
The last of the personal injury cases were settled in 2012, but it wasn’t until 2013 that Forest River issued a recall for some of its buses. The recall was small – only 399 vehicles – and made no mention of the tragedy that had triggered it. It was classified by Forest River as a recall due to a “warranty claim,” and offered fixes that included upgrading the tires and installing additional springs in the rear suspension assembly, as well as recertifying the buses to a higher Gross Vehicle Weight Rating (GWVR). The buses in question had been manufactured between 2002 and 2007 – meaning that some had been in use for a decade before recalls were issued.
In the wake of significant vehicle safety issues, such as the Takata airbag recall, in recent months, the NHTSA has tightened up its requirements for manufacturers in the issuance of timely safety defect recalls. As a result, they have levied substantial fines against Forest River for their failure to report critical safety issues in a timely manner.
Protecting Your Safety
While agencies such as the U.S. Department of Transportation and the NHTSA exist to protect the consumer, this emphasizes just how long it can take before action is taken on a serious safety issue. This is why attorneys with experience in consumer safety issues are constantly fighting for the legal rights of people from all walks of life. If your church or organization owns and uses a bus for group travel, investigation into that vehicle’s safety should be a priority. Your life and the lives of your loved ones may depend on it!