Investigation raises safety concerns about certain car booster seats

Published: Feb. 6, 2020 at 3:39 PM EST
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A new investigation is raising serious questions about some safety claims made by the maker of a popular car booster seat for children. ProPublica obtained crash test video of an Evenflo booster seat that's still on the market.

Jillian Brown was a 5-year-old in constant motion. She was about to start kindergarten in 2016 when her world changed.

Her parents Jay and Lindsay.

"The first thing I did was look back to... To see, the check on the girls," Lindsay said.

Lindsay was driving her two daughters-- Jillian and Samantha-- to day care when they were hit on the driver's side near their Long Island home.

"Jillian was hunched over. I couldn't see her face," Lindsay said. "I know they took her out first... they had her laid out on the trunk and they were doing CPR."

Jillian was the farthest from the impact, strapped into her Evenflo Big Kid Booster Seat.

While Samantha, in a different car seat, and Lindsay recovered from their injuries, Jillian never will. She was internally decapitated, left paralyzed from the neck down. A ventilator now keeps her alive.

Reporter: How has life changed from that day to today?

Jay Brown: Completely, yeah. Every day is now-- you're caring for her...

The Browns are now suing Evenflo.

But the company says her booster performed as designed and Jillian's injuries were primarily due to the severity of the crash or driver error.

Her car seat meets or exceeds federal standards and was side-impact crash tested. But there's no federal standard for that test and videos of Evenflo's crash tests-- obtained by ProPublica-- show booster seats "passing" even though the child-size test dummy is tossed about like a rag doll.

"I think the word that I used to describe them initially was horrific. Because human beings just aren't built to survive that amount of movement," Dr. Ben Hoffman said.

CBS News showed the videos to Dr. Ben Hoffman, a lead author of car seat recommendations for the American Academy of Pediatrics.

Reporter: Would you want your child in a seat that performed like that?

Dr. Ben Hoffman: No. And there's no way I would want a child who I know or knew or loved to be put into a scenario like that.

A seat with a harness fares better in the crash test-- the test dummy largely stays in place.

In the booster seat, the dummy slips out of the seat belt's shoulder restraint.

During depositions obtained by ProPublica, Evenflo employees explained the only way to fail the company's crash test is if the dummy falls completely out of the seat or if the seat itself breaks, one saying, "We side-impact test our seats, but I don't think we say that we offer any type of side-impact protection."

Engineer Eric Dahle acknowledges the movement seen in the crash tests could lead to serious injury.

Eric Dahle: You could have a contact with something in the vehicle-- another occupant.

Lawyer: So injuries like -- paralyzing injuries, death, serious injury?

Eric Dahle: Serious injury.

For years, the Academy of Pediatrics has recommended kids stay in a car seat with harness restraints for as long as possible and should not switch to a booster seat until at least 40 lbs., matching Canadian regulations.

Until 2007, Evenflo marketed the Big Kid Booster as safe for kids as young as 1 as long as they weighed 30 lbs. or more.

Four years before Jillian's 2016 accident Dahle recommended Evenflo stop selling booster seats for children under 40 lbs. because they'd be safer in seats with harnesses. Dahle, who still works for Evenflo, later testified he supported the decision to stick with the 30 lb. minimum.

Jillian weighed just under 37 pounds.

ProPublica's Daniela Porat.

"Evenflo touted its side-impact test as something that was rigorous and used the side-impact testing marketing to sell its Big Kid Booster," said Porat, a ProPublica Reporting fellow. "The test was anything but rigorous."

Just months before Jillian's accident Evenflo did change the height and weight requirements in the owner's manual but did not notify customers like the Browns already using the seats because the company says there was no safety impact with that change.

And years later, the company's old standard is still out there.

In January, ProPublica bought a Big Kid Booster from Evenflo's own website with 30 lbs. still on the label.

Just this week, CBS News found signage at an Oregon Walmart telling parents the seat was for kids 30 lbs. and up.

"I would never have bought that if I'd known. I would've left them in the front-facing five-point harness for years," Jay Brown said. "You know, you read it and you believe it."

Evenflo declined CBS News' request for an on-camera interview but said in a statement that the company is a pioneer in side-impact testing and it provides safe, effective and affordable products. Adding it complies with all federal regulations, which do allow boosters to be sold for kids weighing 30 lbs. and up.

Congress has been asking federal regulators to create a side-impact crash test standard for car seats since at least 2000. It is yet to go into effect.