In March a Florida jury awarded a family almost $20 million after a church’s Ford E350 van rolled over, throwing 5 passengers and killing one woman and the driver. As early as 2001, manufacturers and transportation officials have been on notice about the dangers of 15 passenger vans, typically used to transport church-goers and students to and from events.
In Kentucky, churches historically used left-over school buses to transport its members to events. However, after the tragic Carrollton bus crash that killed 27 people, churches switched to 15 passenger vans. State-based regulations were put in place for organizations who chose to use buses as their main form of transportation. Kentucky organizations quickly realized it was cheaper to purchase 15 passenger vans than to comply with the regulations.
Kentucky churches believed these vans would be safe, so long as they were not recalled, but the National Highway Safety Administration (NHTSA) issued safety warnings in 2001 because 15 passenger vans come with an alarming rollover risk.
NHTSA studied the older 15 passenger vans and stated, “the van's center of gravity shifts up and to the rear when fully loaded, raising the likelihood of rollover if the driver makes a tight turn or swerves for any reason. It's also harder for the driver to keep control if a tire blows, as happened in the crash that killed Michalanne Salliotte. Ford and other manufacturers have been urged, since the late ‘90s and into the early 2000s, to add stability control features.”
In 2004 and 2005 some manufacturers added these features, yet the stability control adds a cost that churches and organizations are not willing to pay and they still operate the older, dangerous models. This has proven to be difficult for filing suit because many states’ product-liability laws do not allow individuals to bring claims on older vehicles. Kentucky’s laws are not as strict.
This year, NHTSA has addressed the issue again and released a statement addressing van operators and urging them to take extra precautions. Many have challenged this statement and urge manufacturers to recall vehicles since drivers may not be aware of the exact precautions they need to take. For now, there are no regulations for 15 passenger vans. Kentucky organizations and churches who cannot afford the safer mini-bus are only advised to adhere to NHTSA’s and their insurance companies’ safe handling advice while the continued operation leaves them vulnerable to liability.