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Should car companies be prosecuted when technical failures cause accidents? The French example of a brake failure cited in fatal crash trial!

Volvo 850 TDI Accident in FranceNever before has a car accident caused by an apparent brake failure caused so much negative media coverage for a car manufacturer, which is always keen on praising his safety features and safety awards. Although backed by the mother-company, a local car distributor was taken to court in case of an accident caused by technical failure. So, can this also happen in Egypt or the Middle East?

A French prosecutor said at the opening of a trial Tuesday (13.11.2007) that brake failures in a Volvo car killed two children in a 1999 crash near the city of Strasbourg. Volvo Car is one of four defendants on trial for involuntary manslaughter in Saverne (France). The case stems from an accident where a woman lost control of her Volvo 850 TDI wagon and hit three children on their way to school. Three companies, including the mother-company Volvo Cars Corporation, Volvo France and a local Volvo dealership and distributor (Volvo garage of Souffelweyersheim, who sold the vehicle and took care of the maintenance), face a total of 675,000 euros ($985,000) in fines.
The French court of Saverne (Bas-Rhin) will decide on the respective responsibilities of all involved parties, after the driver Catherine Kohtz stated she tried to slow down but the brake pedals were unresponsive and hard whereas the automaker said that the braking system was in a perfect condition. The technical expert discussions in court are expected to last for at least 4 days.
At least two witnesses might have crucial testimonies in the court. They will appear in court and tell the court about similar brake-problems and brake-failure with the same car model. Eight different expert opinions and reports were delivered during this court investigation which lasted 8 years.
The complete story:

The Swedish car-maker Volvo Cars was placed under French criminal investigation for manslaughter in June 2001, accused of covering up a defect in the brakes of one of its models.

This case,­ the first action of its kind against a car-maker in France, ­arises from this road accident in Alsace when two children aged nine and ten were crushed to death by a Volvo 850 TDI when it collided with a parked RENAULT MEGANE and a shop front.

A preliminary investigation has concluded that the accident was caused not by driver error, as first believed, but by a catastrophic failure of the car's brakes. Gabriel Stéfanus, an investigating magistrate in Saverne, near Strasbourg, believes that Volvo,­ famed for its safety record,­ was aware of a serious problem in the braking system of 180,000 similar cars, sold all over the world. Instead of recalling them, it allegedly only sent inadequate instructions to its dealerships to correct the fault when cars came in for normal servicing. (A practice which is by the way also extremely common with several French car manufacturers in Egypt!)

The president of Volvo France, Dirk Pissens, was placed under formal investigation for manslaughter after his summons by the magistrate. The company denies negligence and claimed there is no proof the accident was caused by faulty brakes.

"Technically, no failing in the braking system has been proved and there is no indication of a link between a failure of our product and the accident," the company said.

Originally, Mrs Khotz was arrested and placed under investigation for manslaughter. But the investigating magistrate was unconvinced by the evidence against her. Instead of that he ordered police to raid the Strasbourg-based Volvo car dealership which sold Mrs Khotz's car.

They seized documents at the dealership, which they claim indicates the car manufacturer was very much aware of a brake defect of "very great importance" in some Volvo 850 models. A rubber connecting pipe in the hydraulic braking system was capable of tearing or detaching itself.

Instead of recalling the cars immediately, it is alleged by the investigating magistrates that Volvo asked its dealers in July 1997 to correct the fault during normal routine service visits. (As mentioned before, this is unfortunately what happens very often in Egypt without even informing the clients about the correction!)

The Strasbourg-based Volvo garage carried out the work in 1998 ­ without informing the Khotzes. Investigators say that the instructions from Volvo were so vague that the work may have been carried out incorrectly. Mrs Catherine Khotz stated that when she tried to brake, as she drove at about 25mph (app. 40 km/h) down a narrow street in Wasselonne, the brake pedal failed to respond.

Her car then consequently collided with a RENAULT MEGANE, and half-turned over, crushing three children against another car, killing two and seriously injuring the third. Tests on the wreck ordered by Judge Stéfanus found that Mrs Khotz was right: she had been driving slowly but the brakes had suffered a catastrophic failure.

Image damage after neglected recalls and technical failure accidents:

However the outcome of this court trial will be, we can be certain of one thing: the image damage for Volvo company and Volvo France is immense.

Needless to say, this will surely have an impact on the sales numbers on the long-run and will surely encourage future customers to fight for their right in court in case of an accident caused by technical failure. I am sure that a lot of old accident cases might be re-examined again after this Volvo France case went on trail.

Recalls and technical-failure-accident trial in Egypt and Middle East:

So, how would such a case be treated in Egypt or any other Middle Eastern country? As far as I recall there had never been such a similar court case in Egypt yet, due to the lack of media and public awareness of such incidents and accidents circumstances, in which accidents can be caused by technical failures. And now we even learned from this Volvo-trial that it is not only the technical failure aspect which is important in such cases, but also the fact that the concerned companies would due (almost) anything to cover up the real circumstances of accidents in order to safe their image.

Nevertheless, this Volvo-trial in France will surely open the eyes of a lot car owners and Egyptian media representatives for similar cases in Egypt. And maybe we will witness the first action of its kind against a car-maker in Egypt soon, just like it happened in France last week!

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