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Chrysler and feds in court over seat belt strength test

February 4, 1997

WASHINGTON (AP) _ Chrysler Corp. failed a seat belt strength test and should recall 91,000 Cirrus and Dodge Stratus cars, the government argued in federal court today.

``It’s the government’s position that these vehicles ... should be recalled because they are unsafe?″ asked U.S. District Court Judge Emmet G. Sullivan.

``That’s correct,″ responded Margaret Hewing, the government’s lead counsel.

Chrysler Corp., in the first court challenge to a government recall, says the federal belt test is vague.

``At least give the industry notice in advance so they know what is required,″ Chrysler’s lead attorney, Erika Jones, told the judge.

At issue is the government strength test of the metal anchor that attaches the seat belt to the car floor.

Last year, the government’s highway safety agency determined the rear seat belt system in a 1995 Cirrus was not strong enough. A nut anchoring the belt pulled out of the floor, leaving a hole in the floorboard during a routine government test.

The same system is used in the 1995 Dodge Stratus.

Jones said the seat belt strength test was unfair because regulators were not clear about what companies must do to duplicate it.

Officials at the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration defended the standard.

``I think the court will find NHTSA’s position is reasonable, it is consistent,″ Hewing said.

Sullivan is likely to rule on the civil lawsuit within a few months, sorting out the competing interpretations of the facts. He must rule on whether the government reasonably interpreted the standard and whether Chrysler had notice of the standard.

If the government wins, aside from a forced recall Chrysler could face civil penalties up to $2.4 million, government officials familiar with the case said.

When Chrysler announced last year it would fight the recall in court, NHTSA officials were surprised. It was the first time the agency was forced to take an auto company to court because a car failed a government safety standard.

The government’s anchor standard has been in effect for more than 25 years, and during that time there have been 54 violations of the standard. In each case _ until Chrysler refused this year _ the car company recalled the vehicles to strengthen the belt anchor.

NHTSA officials say they are particularly sensitive about enforcing seat belt quality because seat belts are the main safety device to protect motorists in crashes.

Chrysler officials say there have been no reports of the seat belts failing in an accident.

The same anchor system was used in all Cirrus and Dodge Stratus cars built between June 30, 1994 and May 15, 1995. After that, Chrysler replaced the weld-nut anchor with a stronger design that includes a metal plate.

The agency and Chrysler are arguing over the position of the government’s testing equipment. The government positioned the equipment several inches away from the seat back while Chrysler had always tested the anchorage system by placing the equipment flush against the seat.

Chrysler says that the equipment should have been placed at the seat’s back, and it has passed that test repeatedly.

Sullivan asked Jones why he should not enforce a recall of vehicles the government has said were unsafe.

``This is not about safety,″ said Jones, but about providing adequate notice to companies about test specifications.

Chrysler officials believe the court battle has implications for all automakers. They said the testing procedure is not clear on what companies have to do to comply.

Agency officials say they can test the seat belt system from several different positions, and they published language saying so in 1991.

Hewing was questioned on why NHTSA officials did not specify exactly where the equipment should be.

``Aren’t you asking a lot from a manufacturer?″ Sullivan said.

``NHTSA for years has been testing in at least some of the tests with the (equipment) forward _ and that should not have been a surprise to Chrysler,″ Hewing replied.

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