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Fatal Florida Van Crash Investigated by Federal Authorities

An overloaded 15-passenger van careened off a rural Florida highway and into a water-filled ditch, killing eight passengers and wounding 10 others.

The group was on an unlit stretch of road in Glades County shortly after midnight, on their way back to Fort Pierce following a church revival on the coast of Southwest Florida. Passengers ranged in age from 4 to 89. The 4-year-old, who survived, was listed in stable condition.

The National Safety Transportation Board has launched an investigation into the accident, something that literally only happens in 1 out of every 1 million accidents, according to news reports. Factoring into that decision was the high number of deaths and the fact that this was a 15-passenger van, a vehicle with a notoriously spotty safety history.

In fact, federal data examined by news reporters indicates Florida was No. 1 for 15-passenger van accidents from 2009 through 2013. There have been 45 fatal crashes in Florida involving these vehicles in that short time frame.

Part of the reason for this is likely because Florida is a destination. From the beaches to the theme parks to the swamp tours, people want to come here, and they want to come here year-round. These large vans are popular among church groups, youth sports teams, senior groups and other organizations.

The problem is they are very dangerous. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has issued numerous warnings to the public regarding the risk of a rollover in these vehicles, particularly when they are overloaded with too many passengers. In fact, the risk of a rollover crash triples when the number of passengers inside one of these vehicles is increased from five to 10. And that’s not even considered overloaded or even at capacity.

In essence, we have a product that is advertised for use by 15 people when it shown by government regulators not to even be safe for 10.

The vehicle in this instance did not rollover. That doesn’t mean there were not issues with defectiveness. We don’t know why the driver veered off the road. It could have been fatigue. It could have been a medical issue. What we do know is that the tires on these vehicles also have been known to be the source of many problems.

Specifically, under-inflated tires are frequently cited as a causal factor in 15-passenger van accidents. So too is driver inexperience. These vehicles handle much differently than smaller, non-commercial vehicles, but they don’t require any special licensing or training to operate.

The vans come equipped with four rows of seating, and getting people to buckle up has proven problematic. One news outlet interviewed the founder of Safety Research & Strategies Inc., a national research firm focusing on consumer injuries, who stated seat belts in these vehicles often do not work properly. The are typically difficult to use and the geometry of their placement is poor, so even when people are wearing them, they get ejected.

That explains why investigators can’t definitively say yet how many people were wearing seat belts. They do know the 4-year-old was not in a child car seat, as required by Florida law.

Investigators say they will be closely analyzing the vehicle for possible defects, as well as carefully determining the degree to which driver error played a role in the crash.

This model of vehicle, which is from 2000, is no longer produced by the manufacturer. It now produces a full-size van that is equipped with a lower center of gravity.

In terms of liability, injury lawyers would likely examine the culpability of the manufacturer, the driver, the trip organizers and possibly even the county or state traffic engineers, as the fact that the road was unlit has been raised as a possible issue of concern leading to prior accidents.

Call Freeman Injury Law — 1-800-561-7777 for a free appointment to discuss your rights.

Additional Resources:

Deadly van crash: passenger vans raise wide array of safety concerns, feds say, March 31, 2015, By Katie LaGrone, WPTV Channel 5

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Hilyer v. Fortier – $550K Teen Car Accident Injury Judgment Reversed, March 10, 2015, Broward Accident Lawyer Blog

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