In February 2020, a California parent filed a product liability class action lawsuit against car seat maker. Evenflo. Days later, two additional consumers joined the class action, and claims were consolidated in Massachusetts District Court. In the class action complaint, the plaintiffs allege that Evenflo made misleading safety claims in its advertising and that the company’s Big Kid booster seat led to children’s catastrophic injuries.
Big Kid Booster Seat
At the center of the class action complaint is Evenflo’s Big Kid booster seat. The Big Kid booster seat, which serves as an intermediate step between a full car seat and riding without any kind of child seat, has consistently been a top seller in the booster seat category. The booster seat raises a child’s body up in the seat of the car so that the lap and shoulder belts fit correctly. In an accident, a booster seat plays a critical role in protecting a growing child from injury. But if a booster seat fails, children risk severe injury or even death. Injuries that have been associated with the Big Kid booster seat are traumatic brain injury and internal decapitation— when the spinal cord dislocates from the base of the skull resulting in paralysis.
Class Action Allegations Against Evenflo
In the class action complaint, the plaintiffs allege Evenflo’s Big Kid booster seat marketing was fundamentally deceptive. Evenflo advertised the booster seat as safe for children weighing under 40 pounds and described the seat as “side-impact tested.” According to the complaint, these statements were a clear misrepresentation of Evenflo’s own testing of the booster seat. This testing had revealed that a side-impact collision could cause serious injury or death to a child in the car seat—of which Evenflo was well aware. The complaint describes that during Evenflo’s testing, child-sized crash test dummies did not stay restrained and were, in fact, thrown from the Big Kid booster seat during simulated side-impact collisions. This testing also found that the risk of injury was particularly high when the crash test dummy weighed less than 40 pounds. Nevertheless, Evenflo marketed the booster seats as safe, even though their testing indicated just the opposite.
Booster Seat Regulatory Gap
Two major factors contributed to the regulatory failure of Evenflo’s Big Kid booster seat. Firstly, Evenflo is accused of choosing to ignore the clear warning signs. The class action complaint references an exposé by ProPublica that uncovered internal concern about the booster seat’s safety as early as 2012. According to this investigation, a leading booster seat engineer at Evenflo warned the company about issues with the car seat. The engineer described how the test dummy results indicated an enormous risk of head, neck, and spinal cord injuries.
Despite these warnings, internal records at Evenflo show that a marketing executive declined to follow the engineer’s safety recommendation. The executive expressed exasperation over the issue in emails, stating that he “will not approve” a decision to tell buyers that the Big Kid Booster Seat was not safe for children under 40 pounds.
Evenflo’s dismissal of these safety warnings was compounded by a federal loophole allowing the company to set their own crash safety standards. About 20 years ago, Congress passed a law required the National Highway Traffic Safety to create regulatory standards for car and booster seats. The NHTSA enacted such standards with regard to head-on collision safety, but not side-impact collisions. As a result, car and booster seat manufacturers can create their own tests for side-impact collisions—and set their own pass/fail standards. Without any federal oversight, Evenflo has been able to market the Big Kid booster seat as “side-impact tested” without any official meaning behind this label.
The Role of Experts in Evenflo Litigation
Since regulatory requirements are murky in this area, the contributions of expert witnesses will certainly be required in order to clarify the necessary safety standards for booster seats. Experts will also be crucial to explain whether Evenflo deceived consumers with their marketing of the Big Kid booster seats.
Engineering experts will be particularly critical to evaluate the results of Evenflo’s side-impact testing and to corroborate, or challenge, the testimony of Evenflo’s engineer about the risks to smaller children. Experts in marketing may also be called to weigh in on whether Evenflo’s decision to keep advertising the Big Kid booster seats as “side-impact tested” and safe for children between 30 and 40 pounds was reasonable product labeling. Finally, pediatric physicians will be crucial to explain the extent of injuries sustained by children riding in Big Kid booster seats and, where applicable, discuss the damages.