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In the fall of 2001, cattle auctioneer Jay Gates drove with his 2-year-old daughter, Zoie, to his sale barn where he helped unload a truck full of animals in Anthony, Kan. Gates thought the safest place to leave Zoie would be in the back seat of his 2000 Ford pickup, next to where he was working. The driver of the cattle truck noticed her leaning out a window and talking to a dog. Then he looked away. She must have kneeled on the power window switch. The window rolled up and caught her throat, suffocating her. “When it crushes your neck, you can’t scream. You can struggle, but you’re unable to scream,” said Robert Palmer of Springfield, Mo.’s Law Offices of Robert M.N. Palmer, who represented Gates and his wife in a suit against Ford. “We call it the silent killer.” Power windows kill about four Americans a year and injure 500, according the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and Janette Fennell, president of Kids and Cars, a child-safety advocacy group. American automakers are starting to follow the European lead by installing safety devices to prevent these kinds of injuries. In the meantime, most cars have windows that don’t stop when they encounter an object, and that rise with considerable force. Kids and Cars has produced a video of a window neatly slicing a head of cabbage in half. Industry sources won’t say how many times they have been sued. Records are available of a smattering of products liability suits growing out of window accidents. Plaintiffs’ lawyers typically allege that automakers knew the danger of the windows’ design. The companies tend to settle cases, which mostly involve child victims, rather than take them to trial. That’s what happened with the suit over Zoie Gates’ death: a settlement whose terms weren’t disclosed. Gates v. Ford, No. CJ-2002-368(L) (Cleveland Co., Okla., Dist. Ct.). Plaintiffs sometimes lose When they are tried, however, the suits are not sure-fire wins for plaintiffs. A products liability and negligence suit by the parents of a 4-year-old Wisconsin girl killed by a window after being left in a truck was unsuccessful. Holum v. General Motors, 221 Wis. 2d 222 (1999). Despite hearing evidence that there had been 24 previous such incidents, the jury found that the window system was not unreasonably dangerous or defective. It found her father 100% liable. “We believe that the vast majority of these injuries can be prevented if children aren’t left unsupervised in a running vehicle or a car with the keys left in the ignition,” said Kristen Kinley, a Ford spokeswoman. She noted that a lock switch lets the driver keep other windows from being fully closed by passengers. Brett Gates, Zoie’s mother, said, “They accuse the parents of neglect . . . . Knowing about a problem and choosing to ignore it, that’s neglect. So you tell me who’s neglectful-Ford, who’s known about it since the 1960s, or parents who have no idea it’s a problem.” Federal standards allow rocker and toggle switches for power windows. A rocker switch is pushed down on one side or the other to raise or lower the window; a toggle switch is pushed from side to side. Advocacy groups say pull-up, push-down switches would be safer. Ford’s Kinley said there’s no evidence that these switches are any safer. Palmer, the Gateses’ lawyer, said that in all the documented accidents there’s not one with a pull-up, push-down switch. General Motors and DaimlerChrysler are phasing in pull-up switches, they said. “We’re moving toward them because they do reduce the chances of inadvertent operation, if perchance the power-system lockout is disengaged,” said Jim Schell, a GM spokesman. But he and Ann Smith, a spokeswoman for DaimlerChrysler, said supervision and removing keys from the ignition are the keys to child safety. It’s not just young children who are caught. A window killed Damien Anthony, 15, in 2002 as he was cleaning his 1986 Ford Merkur, in his driveway in Seminole, Okla. He was found with his body outside the car and his neck and left arm inside it, the glass against his neck. He had somehow engaged the toggle switch. Ford settled the case confidentially, said Palmer, who served as plaintiff’s counsel. Anthony v. Ford, No CJ-2002-3691 (Cleveland Co., Okla., Dist. Ct. 2002). Data on accidents are elusive. Studies thus far appear to have undercounted them. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) began collecting data in 2000. A search of its database for 2001 and 2002 found only five power window-related injuries, none fatal, spokeswoman Ann DeTemple said. The CDC missed Zoie Gates’ death and seven others identified by Kids and Cars. Two studies by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, relying on death certificates, found some but missed others. The agency’s studies didn’t include any children who survived accidents but suffered catastrophic injuries. One such child, Austin Wright, 3, was left asleep in his car seat in the family’s 1996 Lincoln Town Car, keys in the ignition, the car turned off. His mother returned less than five minutes later. He had wriggled out of his car seat, lowered the window, stuck his arm and head outside and had somehow pushed the switch. He survived but suffered severe brain damage, said Palmer, who is also Austin’s attorney. A trial is scheduled for November. Trimble v. Ford, No. CJ-2002-345 (TL) (Cleveland Co., Okla., Dist. Ct.). Ford’s lawyer, Douglas Robinson of Shook, Hardy & Bacon in Kansas City, Mo., declined to comment, as he did in the Gates and Anthony cases. European cars Most European cars have an auto-reverse that engages if the window hits an object as it’s closing, said Lynne Edgar, motor/electronic manager for North America Brose, a car technology supplier. Germany has long required auto-reverse as a safety feature. Many American cars sold in Europe have this feature or offer it as an option. It’s an option on the Ford Focus sold in Europe, but not the one sold in the United States. Ford says these safety features are demand-driven. “The demand is higher in Europe than here,” said Kinley. Billy Edwards of Corpus Christi, Texas’ Edwards Law Firm, has sued General Motors over the death in 2002 of a 3-year-old. Padilla v. GC Truck Center, No. 2003-29094 (Harris Co., Texas, Dist. Ct. 2003). “Auto-reverse would have saved her life,” he said. Post’s e-mail address is [email protected].

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