SAN DIEGO - Erica Davis became a paraplegic at age 25 after a rare internal injury caused a drop of blood to leak onto her spinal cord.
"It's a one and five million chance that it's happened," said Davis.
Since then, she's become the first female paraplegic to have climbed Mount Kilimanjaro, competed as a triathlete in races around the world, competed in open water jet ski races and mastered yoga out of her wheelchair.
Davis told Team 10 one of her biggest fights was in the courtroom.
"I've been first doing this and this, why not be first burn case to go through trial," said Davis with a smile.
Four years ago when lifting her wheelchair into her 2006 Chevrolet Colorado, Davis believes she accidentally turned on her seat heater.
"Like my wheel or my foot plate could have hit it," said Davis.
The button is on the side of the seat and there is no light on the dashboard or console telling you it's on. She drove 30 minutes to tennis and 30 minutes back. Davis said with no feeling below her belly button she didn't know it was on.
"For someone who can't feel, you have no idea," said Davis.
Davis said later in the shower, she touched blisters on the back of her legs and backsides that were third degree burns.
"I ended up having to have skin graft surgery," said Davis.
Davis was in the hospital when she realized the seat heater could have caused the burns. She called her mom to have her check the jeans she was wearing.
"There was blister skin from where I was sitting," said Davis.
Davis and her attorney, Roger Geddes, filed a lawsuit against the two out-of-town General Motors dealers that sold and supplied her car.
As part of the auto bailout in 2009, people who say they are injured by GM before the bankruptcy filing cannot make a claim against GM.
"They were saying it wasn't their fault and that Erica's injuries were caused by the shower and that some of her injuries were bedsores," said Geddes.
Geddes had inspectors test the seat and said certain parts, called hot spots had temperatures between 111 and 115 degrees.
There have been 1,207 complaints of seat heaters overheating for many different makes and models of cars since 1984 reported to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.
to view the complaints (MS Excel spreadsheet; data compiled by Saftey Reseach & Strageies, Inc.)
The agency is calling for uniform standards of seat heaters across the automobile industry.
Geddes said it's not just people with sensory deprivation, like Erica, who need to be concerned.
"The elderly who might have less feeling or who burn faster, children who burn faster, individuals on medication, diabetics," said Geddes.
Erica's case proved to be another obstacle she'd overcome -- she was awarded more than $500,000.
"They found the seat, the seat heater was designed defectively and it caused the injuries to Erica," said Geddes.
Davis is looking toward the future and preparing for her next triathlon on May 27.
"I can start moving on my life again and now can have a chance to get to start a lot of things I want to do and not have to worry about the burns or courts," said Davis.
GM gave 10News this statement:
"Although it was not a party to this case, GM believes the seat heater in Ms. Davis' vehicle is safe and performed appropriately. While respecting the jury's verdict, GM does not believe the seat heater caused Ms. Davis' alleged injuries."
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration is committed to ensuring the safety of vehicles on America's roads. Based on the agency's review of the available data regarding the variable temperatures of seat heaters in various make and model vehicles, agency data shows that the rate of alleged injury due to seat heaters is extremely low. While the data does not reflect a trend demonstrating an unreasonable safety risk, the agency recognizes the potential hazards overheating seats may generate and has initiated several actions, including asking SAE to consider the development of a recommended industry practices.
The committee began meeting in March 2012 and NHTSA suggested to the committee that areas for consideration include: a maximum temperature for the seat as well as the identification of an acceptable range of temperature for potential extended use of the heaters; an automatic shut off feature; standardization of indicators to show the heaters are activated and location requirements for the indicator. The committee was receptive to the suggestions and technical discussions in these areas are underway.
NHTSA will continue to follow the committee's progress. In addition, NHTSA attended the National Mobility Equipment Dealers Association (NMEDA) conference in Phoenix last year and led a discussion on the issues associated with seat heaters. NHTSA made the recommendation that the group discuss potential seat heater issues to help raise public awareness of the issue. NMEDA is the international trade association of firms that modify vehicles to accommodate people with disabilities. It also includes groups that transport disabled passengers.
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