NEW ORLEANS -- It was December, 2010.
A city ambulance raced toward University hospital with a gunshot victim from the Seventh Ward.
Inside, paramedic Ryan Earls was treating a critically injured man when the ambulance suddenly hit a pothole or a bump, jolting everyone inside.
Earls slammed down onto the bench seat below him.
“The seat collapses and he goes into the well, into the compartment below the squad bench,” said David Oestreicher, an attorney for Earls.
Oestreicher said Earls still managed to get his patient to the hospital alive, but Earls fell into the storage bin under the seat. It was a flip-up seat with only a ‘piano hinge’ with 14, half-inch screws securing it to the Formica and plywood seat.
“All the screws had come out,” said Oestreicher.
“The hinge just zippered away from the bench seat itself,” said A.J. McPhate, LSU engineering professor emeritus.
Oestreicher said Earls suffered a series of injuries, including damage to a spinal disc and debilitating nerve damage.
“As a result, he could not go to work ever again as a first responder. He is relegated to sedentary jobs with modifications.”
McPhate said the bench seat simply did not have enough support.
It was held up in the front by the storage compartment, in back only by screws attaching the hinge to the seat.
“It was a defective design,” said McPhate.
A federal court jury awarded Earls $1.5 million in damages last month.
The city of New Orleans intervened in Earls’ lawsuit, seeking to collect some workman’s compensation it had to pay Earls when his injury prevented him from working.
A spokesman for the mayor said the city has no comment due to ongoing litigation.
The company that built the ambulance – Medtec – issued a news release in 2010 when it made a deal to lease 15 ambulances to the city, saying, “These super-duty ambulances are built to handle the demands of the city’s rugged streets…”
After the bench seat failed, Medtec retrofitted all the ambulances it had leased the city.
“This is the retrofitted one,” said Oestreicher, pointing out some features. “There are screws and bolts that go through the hinge, and the hinge is put underneath.”
“It has a much higher robustness as far as being able to carry the loads,” said McPhate.
In court, the Medtec Ambulance Corporation’s chief engineer, Robert Wilkey, said, “We’ve got thousands of vehicles with a very similar setup with squad benches in them and we’ve had no reports of any failures.”
“If they’ve got some others out there with that same design, they need to be retrofitted,” said McPhate. “Why? Because, they’re going to fail and somebody will get hurt, that’s all there is to it.”
“It could affect anybody’s safety,” said Oestreicher. “If you’re a patient in critical condition and your paramedic falls into a seat that collapses on him, it would be like, I mean it’s the same thing as a surgeon falling through the floor while he’s operating on you.”
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has opened an investigation. The federal agency’s Office of Defects investigation is evaluating whether there should be a “safety recall.”
Eyewitness News has tried repeatedly to get Medtec’s response to all of this through a series of phone calls to the company, and e-mails and calls to Medtec’s attorneys in the court case. But Medtec has not responded.
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s web site reveals Medtec has issued a number of recalls involving seat belts.
All of this comes at a time when ambulance safety advocates are pressing for more stringent safety standards for the box on the back of the ambulance that carries patients and paramedics.
“There’s no real protection for the occupants,” said McPhate. “They’re not designed to protect the occupants and they will come apart.”
Ironically, critics say that the vehicle that races through city streets with lights and sirens to save lives is one of the more unsafe vehicles on the road when it comes to a crash.
McPhate said the vehicle is unsafe because they are trying to make it lighter.
An emergency physician and researcher, Dr. Nadine Levick, published a study in 2008 on the crash-worthiness of three kinds of ambulances with patient compartments.
“Results demonstrated poor vehicle structural integrity and crash worthiness for these aftermarket modified ambulance vehicles.”
Levick and others have called for tougher government safety tests and standards to protect people in the patient compartment of ambulances.
“I’ve seen what happens to the box whenever it gets involved in a serious crash,” said McPhate. “It just comes apart.”
The federal government would not say when it expects to complete its investigation of the Medtec ambulances.