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Dangerous Automobile Window Glass: A Design Defect That Should Not Be Overlooked

Most vehicles on the road contain tempered glass in their side, rear, and roof window openings. In accidents, this tempered glass can shatter and break, causing lacerations and other injuries and leaving openings through which occupants can be fully or partially ejected. While the auto industry has long ignored the obvious dangers posed by tempered glass, the tide is now changing. We are here to help you bring a glass defect case if you were injured due to a window that did not meet specifications.

Call The Gilbert Law Group® at (888) 711-5947 to schedule a free consultation with our experienced car window defect attorneys. We serve clients across the United States.

What Is Laminated Glass?

Laminated glass is required in windshields and has been used in the windshields of every car sold in America for decades. It is not required in other window locations, and carmakers have largely relied on the use of tempered glass for those windows.

Laminated glass consists of two pieces of glass bonded together with a plastic interlayer, typically consisting of polyvinyl butyral (PVB). In a collision, the glass will fracture but the PVB interlayer holds the fragments together and keeps the window in place. This helps prevent passenger ejection. Even after severe accidents, windshields typically remain in place. Ejections through windshields are largely a thing of the past.

For optimal benefits, laminated glass requires adequate edge support. If the window is fixed, it can simply be directly bonded to the body of the vehicle, similar to how windshields are attached. If the window is movable, it should have a window frame. Most passenger cars already have window framing on doors that can support laminated glass.

In many accidents—particularly those involving belted occupants—the existing window frames are adequate when used with laminated glass to serve an effective anti-ejection function. In these vehicles, no additional framing or other modifications are needed. In certain other vehicles, existing window frames can be modified to be effective in retaining the edge of the glass. A window channel known as a t-edge also can be added to further improve the retention at the edge of the movable window.

Because laminated glass can prevent the ejection of passengers in serious crashes, it is unquestionably safer than its alternative, tempered glass. However, most automakers do not use it anywhere but in windshields. Anyone who suffered severe lacerations from shattered glass or was ejected through a broken window may be able to bring a claim. Our auto product liability attorneys at The Gilbert Law Group® bring decades of experience investigating and litigating claims like these.

A diagram comparing laminated glass (a three-layer material consisting of PVB sandwiched between 2 panes of glass) and tempered glass, which is only one layer and has no other materials added to it

What Factors Make a Compelling Glass Defect Case?

When arguing for plaintiffs who were injured by the use of defective glass in their vehicle, our attorneys look at an accident from multiple angles to determine how we can build the strongest case.

  • Ejection from fixed windows. If the defective glass at issue broke out of a fixed window, a safer alternative design simply consists of swapping a piece of laminated glass in place of the tempered glass. No additional framing or hardware is necessary. Bonding with urethane—which is now used to bond windshields in place—would be required to ensure retention, but this is not a major cost.
  • Minimal occupant compartment intrusion. Lack of occupant compartment intrusion and window frame deformation make it more likely laminated glass would have remained in the window openings and helped protect against occupant ejection. Laminated glass and other types of safety glass have been shown to remain in place during rollover events in which the vehicles suffered significant deformation. For vehicles that did not buckle or bend in a wreck, laminated glass is even more likely to have survived.
  • Timeframe of manufacture. During the 1970s and 1980s, numerous vehicles, including Ford and General Motors vans, pickups, and sport utility vehicles, were offered with laminated glass in side and rear windows. In a glazing case involving a vehicle from this timeframe, the manufacturer will not be able to make the proverbial argument that “no one else was doing it.” The extent to which laminated glass was used in these older vehicles dispels any notion that it was not feasible or cost-effective.
  • SUV cases. It is easier to make a persuasive case for laminated glass when the accident vehicle is an SUV that the manufacturer knows is more likely to roll in an accident. Partial ejections of both belted and unbelted SUV occupants were all but assured by the decision of the major manufacturers to use tempered side and rear window glass in virtually every SUV on the road. (i)
  • Newer vehicle cases. The newer the accident vehicle, the more difficult it is for the manufacturer to defend a glazing case on the technical merits. The number of vehicles utilizing laminated glass in side and rear window openings has grown steadily in recent years. These vehicles tend to be high-end luxury models whose safety is all but assured. The use of laminated glass by manufacturers such as Lincoln, Mercedes, Volvo, Audi, and Lexus makes it more difficult for carmakers to rely upon some of the arguments traditionally used in glazing cases, such as the argument that laminated glass causes more lacerations. Few jurors are likely to conclude that manufacturers like Mercedes and Volvo are using unsafe glass in their high-end models.
  • Belted occupants. When a belted occupant becomes partially ejected through a window opening and sustains injuries, the glazing claim is especially strong. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) tests as well as those conducted by manufacturers like Ford demonstrate how laminated glass easily can prevent partial ejections of belted occupants. In serving as a barrier that contains the occupant, laminated glass performs much the same role as an inflatable side curtain that deploys during a rollover. Belted occupants, moreover, have a reasonable expectation that they should not become partially ejected. If the seatbelt is incapable of preventing such partial ejections, why shouldn’t the manufacturer utilize other means of containment, such as laminated glass?

Can Tempered Glass Be Considered Defective?

The widespread use of tempered glass for vehicle side windows, rear windows, and sunroofs should no longer be considered acceptable design practice. The expanding use of laminated glass in high-end, luxury vehicles is not only making clear the benefits of laminated glass but also the ease with which this glass can be substituted for tempered glass in passenger cars, pickups, and SUVs.

A Brief History of Automotive Glass Trends

Beginning in the late 1920s, manufacturers began making windshields out of laminated glass. Eventually, laminated glass was used for side and rear windows as well. However, in the late 1950s and early 1960s, the industry shifted to using tempered glass for all windows except the windshield. With the exception of certain vans, pickups, and SUVs in the 1970s through the 1990s—which continued to use laminated glass in side and rear windows to give a deep window tint, according to the industry—this use of tempered glass in side and rear windows, as well as sunroofs, has largely continued to this day.

Black and white photograph of a crash test

A shift back to the use of laminated glass in these locations has begun, though it has generally been limited to high-end luxury models. For example, the Audi A8 and the Mercedes S-Class and CL Series come standard with a full set of laminated glass in all side and rear windows. The Audi A6 in Europe can be purchased with a full set of laminated glass as an option. Other automakers including Chrysler, Lincoln, Ford, Volvo, BMW, Peugeot, Lexus, and Toyota are beginning to offer laminated glass side windows. Some companies, like Chrysler, have even acknowledged this as the safety feature it is. However, many non-luxury cars do not come with the option of laminated glass side and rear windows, meaning drivers of lower means are still in danger.

The Dangers of Tempered Glass

Dangers of Tempered Glass

Tempered glass consists of a single layer of heat-treated glass. In a collision, when tempered glass breaks, the entire piece of glass shatters and can turn into multiple sharp projectiles. When this happens, the glass can cause lacerations and other injuries and the window opening becomes a potential portal of ejection. Tempered glass has been shown to react this way in real-world accidents and laboratory settings. In all types of dynamic crash testing conducted on virtually every vehicle sold in America for the past several decades, tempered glass side windows, rear windows, and sunroofs shatter and break out on impact.

These dangers have long been known to the auto industry. During crash testing required by the Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards, tempered glass can plainly be seen flying through the vehicle. The danger exists in nearly every type of accident. While the industry often contends tempered glass breaks into small pieces that are not hazardous, crash test films reveal numerous large pieces with sharp jagged edges. The presence of airborne shattered glass at head level—including the head level of small children when seated in child seats or booster seats—is unsettling.

Tempered glass is especially dangerous in rollover accidents. In a series of NHTSA dolly rollover tests on Nissan pickups, the tempered glass side windows shattered, and belted dummies were repeatedly partially ejected out of the window openings. In real-world SUV rollovers, belted occupants frequently receive fatal head injuries when their heads are partially ejected outside the window plane during the roll sequence.

While tempered glass is dangerous in any vehicle, its use in an SUV is especially hazardous given the higher rollover propensity. When a rollover-prone SUV has a weak roof and a marginal restraint system, the danger increases. Side window glass in such a vehicle is often the last opportunity to prevent full or partial ejections.

A side view of an SUV after a crash. One of the backseat windows has completely shattered away, leaving a hole.

Laminated Glass as a Reasonable Alternative Design

Unlike many automotive crashworthiness cases in which the alternative design frequently has not been widely used or tested, the alternative design in a window glass (or glazing) case typically is tried, tested, and proven. Laminated glass has been used in the windshields of every vehicle manufactured for sale in the U.S. for decades. While laminated glass fractures during accidents, it remains in place, effectively containing occupants and preventing ejections.

NHTSA Testing of Laminated Glass

A wealth of testing from the NHTSA is available for use in glazing cases. In the late 1980s, the agency conducted a series of dolly rollover tests on eight vehicles containing bilayer glass-plastic glazing (ii) in the side window openings. The test vehicles included a:

  • 4-door 1984 Honda Accord
  • 4-door 1982 Chevrolet Celebrity
  • 4-door 1986 Dodge Omni
  • 4-door 1982 Mercury Zephyr
  • 1988 Nissan pickup
  • 1988 Dodge Caravan
  • 1988 Chevrolet CK-10 pickup
  • 1988 Ford Bronco II.

The glass-plastic glazing remained in place in every test, even when the Hybrid III dummies were unrestrained. The researchers concluded the tests showed the effectiveness of glazing. They noted, “The glass-plastic glazing remained in place even with glass fracture and window frame distortion.” (iii)

Notably, even in rollovers, the glazing stood up to extreme forces. Though the 1988 Nissan rolled over one and a half times and experienced severe roof crush as well as direct dummy contact to the window, the bilayer glass-plastic glazing remained in place. The report notes that the glazing was “still able to provide its ejection reduction function.”

This test stands in contrast to a series of NHTSA dolly rollover tests conducted on Nissan pickups that did not have window glazing, in which belted dummies were partially ejected through window openings in four separate tests. These tests are especially useful in proving the benefits of laminated glass in a rollover because they provide a direct “apples to apples” comparison in which the only difference is the window glazing.

A 1980s van with laminated side and back windows

NHTSA Reports on Laminated Glass

According to a recent NHTSA report, up to 1,300 lives per year could be saved by using advanced side glazing. (iv) The writers noted would affect rollover accidents in particular: “Advanced glazing systems may yield significant safety benefits by reducing partial and complete ejections through side windows, particularly in rollover crashes.” (v)

Laminated glass’ role in preventing ejection makes it an important part of the vehicle’s overall restraint system. Indeed, it has been considered a significant method of restraining children for decades. In 1985, NHTSA researchers emphasized this role:

Reducing window ejection is a significant child crash restraint means. We have shown that a 6-year-old (44 pound) child dummy moving at 20 mph with the head and spine aligned perpendicular to the glazing can be stopped by the DuPont glass-plastic side glazing, with the plastic layer attached as a “safety net” at the window margins with the plastic stretching and holding after the glass breaks. (vi)

Industry Testing of Laminated Glass

Industry testing has also demonstrated the containment benefits of laminated glass. Ford Motor Company, for example, has found laminated side glass can prevent partial ejections even after multiple rolls and significant roof crush. Decades ago, Ford engineers saw for themselves that laminated glass had benefits—and tempered glass was dangerous—in rollover accidents. These old Ford test reports provide a wealth of evidence of the benefits of laminated glass.

The Low Cost of Laminated Glass

It is widely accepted that the total cost per vehicle of using laminated glass is well under $100. NHTSA estimated the incremental cost of two movable laminated side windows at $48, including any necessary modifications to the window frame. Potential weight savings would further provide cost benefits. The “price” of safety in a glazing case typically is quite reasonable. Any automaker that tries to argue otherwise is being duplicitous.

Other Practical Benefits of Laminated Glass

In addition to preventing full or partial ejections, laminated glass also has additional safety and practical benefits including anti-theft properties. Laminated glass can help thwart car-jackings and ensure that when the vehicle doors are locked, the occupants truly can expect a degree of security. Right now, a tap with a hammer can shatter most side or rear windows, no matter that they are rolled up and the doors locked. Laminated glass also offers superior sound-deadening qualities, minimizes sun damage and fading by blocking UV rays, and keeps cars cooler by blocking infrared rays, making air conditioning more efficient.

With no serious downside and numerous safety and other practical benefits, laminated glass is both a reasonable and cost-effective alternative design. In many accidents—particularly rollovers with full or partial ejections—laminated glass could have made the difference between an injury-free event and an accident with serious, permanent injuries. Our attorneys are here to help you prove this in court.

Building a Strategy in Glazing Cases

There are aspects of glazing cases that potentially are appealing to potential jurors.

First, there is a common-sense notion that occupants should not be exposed to large, jagged pieces of flying glass during routine collisions. In focus group work conducted by our team, mock jurors have reacted negatively to the flying glass seen in crash test films. People see little reason why windows should shatter as a matter of design given their pieces turn into projectiles.

Second, laminated glass is a “low tech” fix that has been used successfully for many decades. While it might be difficult to convince a jury that an early 1990s SUV should have had inflatable side curtains designed to deploy in rollovers, it is much easier to argue a vehicle should have contained laminated side windows, which used to be standard equipment.

Injury Causation in Glazing/Ejection Cases

In glazing cases, injury causation is a key battleground. If an occupant is partially or fully ejected and sustains injuries while outside the vehicle, injury causation can be fairly straightforward. Occupants who remain within the vehicle typically do not sustain traumatic amputations, degloving injuries, and the types of serious head injuries (such as massive skull fractures) sustained by occupants who are partially or fully ejected through window openings.

Meeting the Defenses in a Glazing Case

The auto industry is savvy and employs many highly paid attorneys to fight back against legal claims. Here are some of the defenses an automaker might try, and how our team can address them.

Seatbelts

The seatbelt defense can be a hurdle if an occupant was unbelted—particularly if it is clear that the use of a seatbelt would have prevented the injuries. Many states have statutes that prohibit the introduction of evidence of nonuse of a seatbelt to show Plaintiff fault or for other purposes. However, this evidence is often presented for other purposes, such as to negate causation or to demonstrate the vehicle was crashworthy. If seatbelt evidence comes in—or if it is obvious the plaintiff was not belted—an attorney can consider the following defenses:

  • First, it is clearly foreseeable that occupants might not buckle up. Seat belt usage may be higher now than it was in the 1980s, but even today, it is not 100% and the manufacturer should expect some occupants will not buckle up.
  • Second, seatbelt-based defenses can be rebutted by pointing to other incidents involving the accident vehicle in which belted occupants were partially ejected and injured. Belted occupants frequently suffer partial ejection in rollovers due to a combination of poor seatbelt design and roof crush. Tests performed by the NHTSA have shown this more than once. Seatbelts also may become unlatched during rollovers or other accidents and allow the occupant to experience excursion sufficient in many instances to lead to a partial ejection. Seatbelts alone cannot prevent partial ejection. Only the use of laminated side glass can ensure an injury-free event in many accident scenarios.

Lacerations Caused by Laminated vs. Tempered Glass

Some manufacturers claim tempered glass is safer than laminated glass because it causes fewer lacerations. The research does not bear this claim out. No major manufacturer, moreover, has produced anything of substance in discovery that would support this claim.

When NHTSA studied the effectiveness of glass-plastic windshield glazing in rental fleets, it concluded that the injury reduction of glass-plastic windshields was “substantially less than predicted.” Notably, the report concluded that conventional windshields—comprised of High Penetration Resistant (HPR) glass since about 1966—had already brought about “a major reduction in the frequency and severity of head and facial injuries.” The windshield injuries that remained were “primarily those in the minor severity category.” (vii)

If a manufacturer makes this claim, it should be challenged to identify current research (i.e., conducted on HPR laminated glass) concluding that laminated side windows are less safe than tempered side windows.

Overall, the use of laminated glass would lead to a significant reduction in both fatal and serious injuries (MAIS Levels 4, 5, and fatal) with an increase in minor injuries (MAIS Levels 0 and 1). NHTSA’s researchers concluded that “the fatality prevention benefit of advanced glazing would likely greatly outweigh any such disbenefits [such as additional lacerations].” (viii) In the serious glazing cases, the occupant would be much better off with Level 1 injuries than with serious injuries like amputations, degloving injuries, and catastrophic head injuries.

In any event, it cannot be credibly argued that laminated glass is less safe than tempered glass, particularly given the types of vehicles in which it is now offered standard or as an option. It would be difficult for a manufacturer to convince a jury that Mercedes, Volvo, BMW, Audi, Lexus, and Peugeot are equipping their vehicles with defective or dangerous glazing.

Industry Custom

Manufacturers love to portray themselves as being with the “pack” as far as the use of tempered glass. This defense can be rebutted by pointing to the numerous vehicles made during the 1970s through the early 1990s that contained laminated side and rear window glass, as well as to the growing list of vehicles using laminated glass in locations other than the windshield today.

NHTSA’s Rulemaking Termination

In August 2001, NHTSA terminated its rulemaking on alternative glazing materials. (ix) In so doing, the agency noted that advanced side glazing appeared to increase the risk of neck injury. NHTSA was reluctant to require the use of materials that could result in a decrease in passenger safety. However, it is questionable whether there actually is a real neck injury risk. While neck loads were measured to be higher in cars that used advanced size glazing, the testing was done using a Hybrid III dummy. There is a lack of data that relates these neck loads to actual human injury risk.

NHTSA indicated it will continue to explore the feasibility of ejection mitigation through such safety devices as side airbag curtains and that it would pursue development of more comprehensive, performance-based test procedures. It is significant to note that a performance-based test would allow a manufacturer to choose any technology that achieves the necessary performance. Advanced glazing could be a potential solution to a performance-based rule. It also is important to note that the continued development of side curtain airbags and the rush to make them deploy in rollovers indicates the extent to which the auto industry is concerned about partial ejections during rollovers.

Discovery Battlegrounds: Ford, Volvo, and Lincoln Glazing Documents

Ford purchased Volvo Cars in March of 1999 and currently operates the line as a division of their brand. Despite that fact, Ford has been reluctant to produce documents in product lawsuits reflecting Volvo’s use of laminated glass. Today, Ford offers laminated side glass in the Volvo S80, S60, V70, and XC90 as well as in the Lincoln Navigator, Lincoln Aviator, Lincoln Town Car, and its police interceptors. At the time this page was originally written, multiple plaintiffs with cases against Ford were seeing to compel the company to produce its recently generated glazing design and testing documents, including Volvo documents.

Any claim by Ford that Volvo documents are somehow off-limits would lack merit in court. Throughout Ford’s web site and annual reports, Volvo is treated no differently than Lincoln, Mercury, or any other Ford brand. (x) We expect the documents generated by Volvo and other manufacturers that currently use laminated side and rear glass to demonstrate its benefits in potential occupant retention and minimization of ejection.

Contact our office at (888) 711-5947 to reach one of our auto defect attorneys. We have recovered over $1 billion for our clients.

References and Further Reading

i The exceptions are few and far between. The new Volvo XC90 is offered with laminated glass.

ii This glass differed from laminated glass in that it contained only one layer of glass and a layer of plastic—as opposed to laminated glass, which contains a layer of plastic in between two layers of glass. If anything, traditional laminated glass is stronger than the bilayer glass-plastic glazing used in the NHTSA tests.

iii See Clark & Sursi, Rollover Crash and Laboratory Tests of Ejection Reduction by Glass-Plastic Side Windows and Windshields, SAE 890218.

iv See Wilke et al, “Ejection Mitigation Using Advanced Glazing: Final Report,” August 2001.

v Id. at ix (emphasis added).

vi Clark and Sursi, Car Crash Tests of Ejection Reduction by Glass-Plastic Side Glazing, SAE 851203.

vii See NHTSA Report Number DOT HS 808 062, November 1993.

viii Wilke, et al., “Ejection Mitigation Using Advanced Glazing: Status Report II,” National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, August 1999.

ix See Wilke et al, “Ejection Mitigation Using Advanced Glazing: Final Report,” August 2001.

x See e.g. Ford’s 2001 10K Report at 2 (“Our automotive vehicle brands include Ford, Mercury, Lincoln, Volvo, Jaguar, Land Rover, Aston Martin and TH!NK”).

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Start Your Claim with The Gilbert Law Group®

If you suffered partial or total ejection or were injured by flying glass shards during an accident, you may be able to bring a claim for defective window glass. The evidence is clear that laminated glass is more effective as a restraint system and less likely to shatter into projectiles. There is no significant price burden to upgrade side, rear, and sunroof windows. Some luxury brands are beginning to make the switch to offer more safety to their customers.

Everyone deserves this level of safety, and our team is here to help you file a claim if laminated glass could have changed the outcome of an accident. Our attorneys have decades of experience in auto defect cases: We’ve litigated against some of the world’s biggest companies. We are not afraid to do so again. Reach out to us for a free consultation if your or a loved one was seriously injured in a car accident. Automakers that use defective parts should be held accountable for their role in this tragedy.

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