PORTLAND (AP) – A lawsuit filed Thursday against Daimler-Chrysler Corp. contends design defects caused a 15-passenger van to roll over and kill 14 migrant workers last year in northern Maine.

The lawsuit was filed on behalf of the crash’s lone survivor and 70 family members of 13 victims who drowned after their van drove off a bridge and into the Allagash Wilderness Waterway.

The suit, filed in state district court in Pryor, Okla., also names Thrifty Car Rental and Mayes County Chrysler car dealership as defendants. It is the first known suit filed in connection with the accident.

The lawsuit asks Daimler-Chrysler to recall or retrofit its 15-passenger vans to make them safer, as well as seeking unspecified monetary damages, said Jeff Wigington, an attorney in Corpus Christi, Texas.

“I continue to be shocked at the number of these accidents,” Wigington said. “These vans are horribly unstable.”

The Sept. 12 accident occurred when 15 migrant workers from Guatemala and Honduras were headed to cut brush in the remote woods of northern Maine. The van, a 2002 model, veered off a one-lane wooden bridge and plunged into the Allagash in the worst traffic accident in state history.

The suit was filed in Oklahoma because that’s where Mayes County Chrysler and Thrift Car Rental are located, Wigington said.

Thrifty was negligent for allowing the van to be rented for use in an environment that made it susceptible to rollovers, he said. The dealership, he said, bears some responsibility through “seller liability.”

Chrysler maintains that its Dodge vans are safe and have been put through thorough testing, including “extreme handling maneuvers,” said spokeswoman Ann Smith. Dodge stopped manufacturing 15-passenger vans in 2002, she said.

“The preliminary information we have combines the mix of high speeds and extreme winds as the key factors in this tragic accident,” Smith said.

Thrifty Car Rental, based in Tulsa, Okla., has a policy to not comment on pending litigation, said company spokesman Jason Logan. The general manager of Mayes County Chrysler declined comment.

Maine State Police said the cause of the accident on the private logging road was excessive speed. The driver was going an estimated 60 mph to 70 mph, “far too fast for that dirt road,” said Stephen McCausland, spokesman for the Maine Department of Public Safety.

But Wigington said 15-passenger vans are inherently dangerous because of design flaws and that manufacturers need to make them safe.

Car companies created 15-passenger vans by lengthening 12-passenger models, but without moving the rear axle back to make them more stable, Wigington said. Chrysler adds to the instability with “stadium seating” where the rear benches are higher than the front ones so everyone has a view out the front, he said

“So you have an accident waiting to happen, which is why they keep rolling over and people keep getting killed,” he said.

Wigington has been involved in several lawsuits against Ford and Chrysler in other 15-passenger van accidents.

They include a 2000 rollover that killed four members of the Prairie View A&M track team, and a 2001 accident that killed four women on a church outing in Texas. Both cases were settled out of court, he said.

Some 500,000 15-passenger vans are in use on U.S. highways. According to the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration, 424 people have died in passenger van accidents in the United States since 1990.

The National Transportation Safety Board last fall called on Ford and General Motors to improve the safety performance of their 15-passenger vans. Two weeks ago, GM announced it would make stability enhancement systems standard features in its 15-passenger vans.

In the new lawsuit, Wigington is representing the families of the victims from Honduras, while a Florida attorney is representing those from Guatemala.

He said family members of the van driver are not included in the suit because he anticipates Daimler-Chrysler filing a lawsuit against the driver’s family alleging driver fault in the accident.

It is inappropriate to represent a plaintiff who may be a defendant in a related suit, he said.

AP-ES-05-29-03 1704EDT



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