Laminated glass in car windows

by Walter Olson on May 13, 2005

Belatedly following up on the Mar. 7 report about the $31 million verdict against Ford Motor in Zavala County, Tex., on attorney Mikal Watts’s theory (as we put it then) “that the [ejection] injuries were Ford’s fault because it should have used laminated instead of conventional glass in the side windows as a sort of substitute restraint system,” law student Shane Murphy (George Mason U.) had the following comment:

Laminated glass, which is two layers of plate glass with plastic laminate in between, is used on automotive windshields. It has been used for decades to keep objects from easily getting through the windshield and entering the vehicle, not the other way around. In fact, I have seen more than one hapless unbelted occupant of a vehicle propelled fully through a laminated windshield.

Safety glass, which is designed to shatter into very small pieces, is used on side windows in cars. This type of glass is easy to shatter should you need to make a hasty exit from the vehicle, and that’s a key reason it’s put there. It also shatters into small pieces with very little “sharding,” reducing the opportunity for serious injury from broken glass.

Laminated glass requires a special saw to get through. With 12 years of experience, it still takes me five minutes to saw through a car windshield. If your car is on fire you’d prefer safety glass for this reason alone. Laminated glass also causes serious head and facial injuries to those who do full face-plants against the windshield despite seat belt warnings. It will have the same effect in a side window if an occupant is unbelted.

Some automakers are putting laminated glass in the side windows of high-end cars, but this trend should be viewed with great caution. This type of glass does prevent people from “popping a window” to escape from a vehicle in an emergency situation. Two examples of emergencies of this type are vehicle crashes with resulting fires and accidents where a vehicle ends up partially submerged in a body of water. In both cases, the electrical system will likely short out and will prevent easy exit since nearly all cars now have power windows.

I really cannot believe this theory about auto glass even got past the laugh test, never mind into the jury room. Automotive glass should not be used to keep people in the vehicle. Using automotive glass as a backup safety feature would do more harm than good. Seat belts are to keep you in the vehicle, not windows. In fact, I much prefer glass that breaks easily.

More: reader Brian Poldrack of Houston, Texas writes in to say:


I have represented auto manufacturers in glass cases under the same theory pleaded in the Zavala County case, and can confirm that Shane Murphy is right on target with his comments. There is a legally cognizable theory of liability regardless of the type of glass used in automobile side windows. If laminated glass is used, plaintiffs will claim their injuries were caused by being unreasonably contained within the vehicle upon impact; if safety glass is used, they will claim laminated glass should have been used to contain them better and that the decision to use tempered glass was a cost-cutting measure. Because there is a fact issue regarding whether a design is unreasonably dangerous, and courts are hesitant to invade the province of jury fact-finding, every available design has been, at one time or another, found to be unreasonably dangerous. The commutative effect is that it is impossible to manufacture auto glass in such a manner as to avoid potential liability.

NHTSA once did a study on the use of laminated versus tempered (safety) glass in passenger windows and declined to implement regulations, stating that it was not clear whether laminated side glass would cause more injuries than it prevented. The study is available at www-nrd.nhtsa.dot.gov/PDF/nrd-11/glazingreport.pdf (warning, 16+ MB file). NHTSA concluded “[t]he agency is extremely reluctant to pursue a requirement that may increase injury risks for belted occupants to provide enhanced safety benefits primarily for unbelted occupants, by preventing their ejection from the vehicle.” Of course, following government regulations and guidelines is no defense to a products liability suit, so NHTSA’s opinion provides no real comfort or support to an auto manufacturer.