Brian Cole was a minor league outfielder in the New York Mets organization. Being on the 40-man roster, Cole was with the Mets in Port St. Lucie for spring training in 2001. At the close of spring training, Cole was traveling home to Meridian, Mississippi in his 2001 Ford Explorer.
While driving through the Florida panhandle another vehicle apparently forced Cole’s Explorer off of the road. The Explorer flipped three times and Brian was thrown from the vehicle and killed. News accounts at the time reported that he had not buckled up. His family was incredulous. Brian had always worn his seatbelt and an examination of the wreckage showed that the driver’s seatbelt was still latched.
Brian’s family believed that he was wearing a seatbelt and that the seatbelt had failed in the rollover. Seatbelts are designed to lock when there is a sudden movement, like in a crash. However, in a rollover situation, seatbelts can go slack and fail to hold the driver in place.
Cole’s family sued Ford claiming the defective seatbelt caused Brian’s death. They brought expert witnesses to court who testified that Brian’s belt came loose on the first roll, throwing him 78 feet. Cole’s family also presented damaging reports from TRW, the manufacturer of Ford’s seatbelts. Five years before Cole’s death, TRW had warned Ford that conventional seatbelts can release during rollovers and suggested that Ford use an improved design. It took Ford and other automakers many years to use the improved seatbelt design. According to National Highway Traffic Safety Administration data, 22,000 people who were wearing their seatbelts were killed in rollover crashed between 1992 and 2002.
Ford argued it was not at fault, claiming Brian was not wearing a seatbelt and was driving at an excessive rate of speed. A jury determined that Brian was indeed wearing his seatbelt after seeing a coroner’s photograph that appeared to show severe bruising where Brian’s shoulder belt clasped him before releasing him during a roll. The jury found for Brian Cole’s estate and rendered a $131 million verdict against Ford.
CBS News: Family Blames Seatbelt in Ball Player’s Death; Sharyl Attkisson, 11/19/2010
New York Times: Subdued Mets Share in Loss Of Player With Major Future; Tyler Kepner, 4/2/2001