A recent ProPublica investigation revealed that booster seat maker Evenflo continued to market its “Big Kid” seat despite knowing children could be killed or injured in them in the event of a side impact.
Internal communications reveal that since February 2012, at least one Evenflo engineer has been trying to warn the company that its Big Kid seats were not safe for children under 40 pounds. Executives ignored engineer Eric Dahle’s pleas, and continued to market Big Kid booster seats as “side impact tested.”
While Evenflo’s website showed images of dummies remaining intact after a crash thanks to the booster seat, in reality, safety tests carried out by Evenflo had much less positive results.
“The company’s tests show that when child-sized crash dummies seated in Big Kid boosters were subjected to the forces of a T-bone collision, they were thrown far out of their shoulder belts,” ProPublica stated, “Evenflo’s top booster seat engineer would later admit in a deposition if real children moved that way, they could suffer catastrophic head, neck, and spinal injuries – or die.”
This did not prevent Evenflo from declaring the booster seats safe and marketing them to trusting parents for years. According to ProPublica, “The company’s test bar was so low, the only way to fail was if the child-sized dummy ended up on the floor or the booster itself broke into pieces.”
After reviewing several side-impact test videos, internal reports, and marketing documents, journalistic investigators concluded that Evenflo simply designed safety tests that its products could pass, and did not put the children’s safety first.
The stories of parents who trusted Evenflo’s products and unknowingly put their children in harm’s way are numerous. The case of Jillian Brown stands out. Jillian was five years old when her mother’s car crashed in 2016. Although Jillian, who weighed less than 40 pounds, was properly secured in a Big Kid seat, “her chest and stomach jackknifed over the lap portion of her seat belt, her head rotated downward and stretched her neck,” according to journalistic reports.
Jillian suffered something known as “internal decapitation.” She is now paralyzed from the neck down and requires specialized care round-the-clock. Jillian’s father bought the Evenflo seat because it was advertised as especially safe and fit for children under 40 pounds. Jillian’s family has filed a complaint against Evenflo, which is still pending.
Jillian’s accident and others where kids suffered traumatic brain injury did not prevent Evenflo from continuing to market Big Kid for children weighing under 40 pounds.
Evenflo is not the only booster seat manufacturer profiting from lax safety regulations and putting children at risk. Both Graco and Dorel have been sued by the families of kids who were either killed or severely injured in accidents. In many cases, the plaintiffs allege the companies systematically market the seats for small children for whom they cannot offer sufficient protection.
As Evenflo inappropriately marketed its seats for one-year-old children weighing just over 30 pounds, it sold at least 18 million of its Big Kid model. In court, an Evenflo engineer would later admit that they would “not put a 1-year-old in any belt-positioning booster, Big Kid, Graco, you name it,” and would “keep them in an infant seat” instead. His views are in line with those of the American Academy of Pediatrics, which has advised that toddlers weighing up to 40 pounds are best protected in a harnessed seat.
Internal documents show that Evenflo has focused on design and pricing, rather than safety because consumers assume only safe products can reach the market in the U.S. If the booster seat looked good and the price was right, moms and dads would buy Big Kid seats, thinking that regulators would not allow unsafe kid seats to be marketed.
Under federal law, manufacturers are not required to establish a minimum age for booster seats. And although we now know Big Kid is unsafe for one-year-olds, Evenflo has not recalled the seats it sold as safe for this age group.
Evenflo is still selling Big Kid seats and calling them safe for kids over 30 pounds.