Family Blames Seatbelt in Ball Player's Death

Brian Cole was a minor league baseball player headed for the big leagues until he died in the rollover of his 2001 Ford Explorer.
Family Photo

Brian Cole was a minor league baseball player headed for the big leagues, reports CBS News correspondent Sharyl Attkisson.

"Brian was actually on the 40-man roster for the New York Mets organization," said his brother Greg.

Greg says while Brian was driving home from spring training in Fla., a car forced his 2001 Ford Explorer off the road.

It flipped three times. Brian was thrown from it and killed. Everyone assumed he hadn't buckled up.

That surprised Greg, who thought Brian always wore his seat belt. Then, he made a startling discovery.

Brian Cole's Life and Accident Photos

"One thing we noticed when we opened the truck was that the seatbelt was still latched," said Greg. "That kind of raised suspicions in our mind."

Brian's family claims he was wearing his seat belt - but say it was defective and became so loose, it failed to hold him in.

That's because the belt was designed to lock into a firm grip when there's sudden movement, like during a collision.

But the same belt could fail and go slack during the unpredictable forces of a rollover.

Brian's family sued Ford. Engineers used illustrations to show that Brian's belt came loose on the first roll; he was thrown 78 feet, and never had a chance.

But the most damaging evidence was found in Ford's own internal documents.

Five years before the accident, Ford's own seat belt manufacturer TRW warned Ford that "conventional" seat belts can "release...during rollovers." TRW told Ford they already offered a better design: a belt that "remains locked with belt tension regardless of motion."

Yet it took Ford five years to begin using the improved belts in some SUVs. Brian was already dead.

"You think that you put the seat belt on, you think you've done every precaution you can to protect yourself and when you know there was another option that could've possibly prevented my brother from losing his life, that's very frustrating," said Greg.

The big question is: How many seat belts like Brian's are still out there? Experts estimate they're in 3 million older SUVs still on the road, and an unknown number of newer vehicles. But there's no easy way for consumers to tell. And federal officials don't require rollover-safe designs.

According to federal data, 22,000 people who were wearing their seat belts died in rollover crashes between 1992 and 2002. Joan Claybrook used to head the federal highway safety agency NHTSA. She says rollover-safe belts are inexpensive and that federal officials should have forced automakers to use them years ago. As it is, she says there are no federal rules mandating seat belts that hold in a rollover crash.

Ford officials wouldn't agree to an interview, but say it's unfair to blame Ford for Brian Cole's death. They still insist he simply wasn't wearing his safety belt.

The jurors decided otherwise after seeing a coroner's photo. It appeared to show the severe bruising where Brian's shoulder belt grabbed him -- before going slack and letting him go. In September, the jury returned an astonishing $131 million verdict against Ford.

"Once they heard the information, once they saw the evidence, no doubt in their minds that he had his seat belt on and he had done all he could do," said Greg.

Brian's family says his reputation was tarnished by the assumption he hadn't buckled up. They can't bring him back, but feel they did clear his name.

  • Sharyl Attkisson
    Sharyl Attkisson On Twitter»

    Sharyl Attkisson is a CBS News investigative correspondent based in Washington.