7 On Your Side: Seat warmers could cause burns


Many of those who are paralyzed in the lower part of their body have no feeling in their buttocks and legs. Unfortunately, that includes many of our returning veterans.

Erica Davis of San Diego isn't one to let obstacles stop her. The paraplegic is the 2012 National Paratriathlon champion. Davis is also the first woman in a wheelchair to make it to the summit of Kilimanjaro.

"I just kind of have a little adventurous spirit to me," said Davis.

In 2009, Davis was riding in a Chevy truck when she claims the car seat heater malfunctioned. She suffered severe injuries. Her burns ran several inches from the back of her thigh to her buttocks. Four years later, the scars and pain are still there.

"The scars going to be there for life and hopefully pain won't be," said Davis.

Terry Cole from Missouri is working hard to gain his full strength back. He's been paralyzed from the waist down since he was 19. In 2007 he was in a brand new Cadillac Escalade when he says his car seat heater malfunctioned as well. He received severe third degree burns to his buttocks. The burns were so painful he could not sit for three months.

"Having to lay on your side for 90 days, it's unbearable," said Cole.

And there was a hole left in the upholstery of a 2003 Mercedes that was caused by sparking, set off by a seat heater. A Mercedes dealership paid for repairs and the car maker says it is not responsible since it was purchased from a used car dealership. An able-bodied South Bay woman escaped injury from that car, but those who are disabled often aren't as lucky. Dr. David Greenhalgh is chief of staff of burns at both Shriner's and UC Davis Hospital.

"It's very simple. We have people driving who don't have any sensation in their lower body. Those people should not have car seat heaters," said Greenhalgh.

Records compiled by the consumer advocacy group, Safety Research and Strategies show there have been 1,207 complaints about seat heater malfunctions in 19 years to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. Greenhalgh has seen a handful of such cases.

"We know that you can sustain a burn at about 109 to 110 degrees Fahrenheit. So if they get up to 120, 130, 140, they can burn relatively quickly," said Greenhalgh.

Test results conducted by Flir Systems and made available to us by Cole's attorney, Dan Defeo, show the seat heater reached temperatures hovering at 150 degrees. Cole said he didn't know what burned him until his wife experienced it herself.

"Just kept getting hotter and she had to hurry up, pull over the side of the road and jump out of it," said Cole.

Cole sued both the car dealer Sapaugh Motors in St. Louis and the manufacturer of the seat heater. Amerigon denied any fault in the accident.

GM was not sued because it was under the protection of the bankruptcy court at the time. In its answer to the lawsuit, Amerigon said any damages suffered were "caused by plaintiff's act of comparative fault or negligence."

Amerigon alleged that Cole used the seat "after it had been damaged so as to affect its ability to function safely."

"If we can keep one person from getting burnt like this, it's worth it, taking a few minutes out of my time," said Cole.

Sapaugh maintained the vehicle "was not defective or unreasonably dangerous in any manner" and blamed the injuries at least in part "negligent operation." All parties eventually reached a confidential settlement in the case.

Davis sued Chase and Shellworth Chevrolet of the Sacramento area and won a $500,000 verdict in April, GM which assisted in the defense told us in a statement, "Although it was not a party to this case, GM believes the seat heater in Ms. Davis' vehicle is safe and performed appropriately. While respecting the jury's verdict, GM does not believe the seat heater caused Ms. Davis' alleged injuries."

Chase and Shellworth said in the lawsuit that Erica, "could have by the exercise of reasonable diligence limited or prevented her damages."

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration says it believes the rate of alleged injury due to seat heaters is extremely low and does not reflect a trend demonstrating an unreasonable safety risk, but Rosemary Shahan of Consumers For Auto Reliability and Safety disagrees.

"It's a serious problem because dozens and dozens of people have been burned," said Shahan.

Federal regulators have requested that the Society of Automotive Engineers look into coming up with an acceptable range of temperatures. The society confirms that process is underway. We will be keeping track and will report back.

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