Failure to warn of brake fault costs Volvo €200,000

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The Swedish car-maker Volvo – famed for the reliability of its cars – was convicted of manslaughter yesterday for failing to warn drivers that one of its models had faulty brakes.

The conviction and fine of €200,000 (£150,000) imposed by a court in Alsace – the first ruling of its kind in France – follows a car crash in 1999 in which two children, aged nine and 10, were crushed to death when a Volvo ran out of control.

The driver, Catherine Kohtz, 57, a teacher, was also convicted yesterday of failing to control her car but received a relatively lenient punishment of a €300 (£200) fine and a six-month suspended prison sentence.

The court ruled that the indirect cause of the crash was the "negligence" of Volvo in failing to warn drivers of known brake faults in its 850 TDI model. Kohtz fought a lengthy legal battle to prove that her car's brakes had jammed.

Her claim was disputed by Volvo but the court said the Swedish company was "entirely aware the braking system in this model was not perfect because it had ordered minor modifications on several occasions". Since Volvo failed to warn drivers about the potential fault, it was guilty of "furnishing a vehicle whose brake system might be defective", the judge added.

Nine years on, the crash remains a bitter subject in the town of Wasselonne, near Strasbourg. Kohtz, a Frenchwoman married to a wealthy German doctor, has received anonymous death threats, and been accused of being a "bourgeois assassin" and using her wealth and influence to escape blame. Yesterday, the families of the dead children protested that her sentence was an "outrage".

Documents seized from Volvo by police show that the company was aware of a brake defect in some Volvo 850s. A rubber connecting pipe in the hydraulic brake system was capable of tearing or detaching itself.

Instead of recalling the cars, it was alleged, Volvo asked dealers to correct the fault during routine services. But a Strasbourg garage which carried out the work in 1998 claimed that the instructions from Volvo were not clear.

Kohtz said that when she tried to brake as she drove slowly through Wasselonne on 17 June 1999, the pedal failed to respond. The more she pumped the pedal, the stiffer and more unresponsive it became. Her car hit a Renault and half turned over, crushing three children. Two of them died and a third was seriously hurt.

The court said Volvo's negligence was the "first and indirect" cause of the crash and imposed a fine far higher than the "symbolic" punishment sought by state prosecutors. Last night, a Volvo spokesman said the company was still looking at the details of the verdict but insisted faulty brakes were not to blame.

"This is a tragic incident for everyone involved. There was no problem with the brakes," he said, adding that the company expected to appeal against the ruling.