Injured Drivers Say ‘Popping’ Headrests Caused Concussions

A number of drivers are coming forward with claims their car headrests have a serious safety issue and should be recalled.

Among the drivers who say they were hurt is Shawn Alger, owner of a 2015 Jeep Grand Cherokee.

“I love the car,” Alger said. “It’s a nice car.”

It came fully loaded. But Alger recently customized the headrest with a tight-grip cover.

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“I put a nice little Bungee on there, pretty tight, so it can’t come apart,” he said.

“Come apart” is what Alger says the headrest did while he was driving to work one morning. He says the headrest suddenly burst open.

“All of a sudden, I felt a hit in the back of the head,” he said. “I was freaked out a little. I was like, ‘What, is somebody in the car?’ And I looked back. There was nobody back there. There were no cars behind me.”

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Alger says the blow to the back of his head left him dazed and in pain.

“I started feeling nauseous,” he said. “I had a headache and everything. I ended up going to the ER. I had a concussion.”

Alger has company. Laura Baca told our NBC Responds colleagues in Los Angeles she was parked in her 2014 Chrysler Town and Country van when the headrest spontaneously burst open.

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“It hurt really bad,” Baca said. “I was just sitting there on the phone, and all of a sudden I got hit in the back of the head, and it pushed me completely forward.”

NBC Responds searched the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s complaint database and found dozens of other Chrysler, Jeep and Dodge drivers with similar stories.

So, why would a headrest pop open? Some are actually designed to in an accident. Through crash tests, engineers developed what they call the “active head restraint” to reduce whiplash. The front part snaps out a few inches to stop your neck from moving too much in a rear-end collision. But Alger says his “active headrest” deployed randomly, while he was on the road. Baca says she was parked when it happened to her.

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Sacramento attorney Stuart Talley says there’s a problem with how the headrests were made.

“What our experts have told us, and what we believe, is that the plastic is deteriorating over time,” Talley said.

Talley is suing Fiat Chrysler over the headrests. He points to a tiny plastic bracket inside each headrest. Talley believes one side of this latch can wear out and shatter spontaneously, propelling the spring-loaded headrest into the driver’s head.

“No wonder I had a concussion,” Alger said.

The owner’s manual for Alger’s Jeep tells him, “Do not drive” with a deployed headrest. It must be “reset by an authorized dealer immediately”.

Alger told us his headrest couldn’t be reset; it had to be replaced. Alger said Jeep made him pay for it — about $900 — despite his warranty.

So, why the Bungee around his new headrest? Alger says it’s the same design as the old one.

“It could happen again,” Alger said.

NBC Bay Area learned the headrests are made by Grammer, a German automotive supply company. Grammer declined to comment for this story.

Fiat Chrysler sent us this statement:

FCA U.S. vehicles meet or exceed all federal safety requirements. Customer safety is paramount at FCA US. Active head restraints enhance vehicle safety. Evaluations confirm that even in the rare event of inadvertent deployment there is no unreasonable risk of injury. Absent such risk, there is no safety defect. FCA US strongly objects to any alternate characterization.

Fiat Chrysler declined to say how many Chrysler, Dodge and Jeep vehicles have these headrests. Talley, the attorney, believes the number is in the millions. When asked if it was investigating, the NHTSA sent the following statement:

Safety is the NHTSA’s top priority. The agency is aware of this issue and will take further steps as appropriate. Consumers are encouraged to report suspected safety defects and routinely check their vehicle for open recalls.

To file a complaint with NHTSA, click here.

You can check to see if your vehicle has a safety recall by clicking here