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Man says he lost consciousness at the wheel due to Benz's 'new car smell'


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Man says he lost consciousness at the wheel due to Benz's 'new car smell'

by Jeremy Korzeniewski (RSS feed) on Dec 15th 2010 at 5:20PM


Numerous studies have shown that the so-called new car smell – which is actually a potent outgassing of volatile organic chemicals and heavy metals – can be potentially dangerous to breathe in, and that some people are more bothered by these VOCs than others.

But could that new car smell be so insidious that it could cause you to lose consciousness long enough that you get into an accident? And if so, could an attorney use such a new car smell defense to ease a client's legal woes? Sounds a bit odd, but just such a case is currently taking place in Colorado.

Here are the facts: Martin Erzinger, owner of a 2010 Mercedes-Benz sedan (model unknown), fell asleep at the wheel, drifted off the road and struck a bicyclist named Dr. Steven Milo before colliding with a concrete barrier. The unresolved questions are whether Erzinger's sleep apnea was compounded by his car's odors, as suggested by a forensic specialist, and if he was aware that he had struck a pedestrian.

Of course, it's not up to us to decide how guilty or innocent Erzinger may be... we'll leave that up to the court. But we are curious what you think. Could a particularly noxious new car smell be a contributing factor in an accident?



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Sleeping Rich Guy Says 'New-Car Fumes' Made Him Hit Cyclist

The laws of physics dictate that when a two-ton car hits a 150-pound rider on a 30-pound bicycle, the cyclist loses. Which is why drivers have an extra responsibility to be careful ... or so it used to be.

Enter one Martin Joel Erzinger, a (presumably) wealthy Denver fund manager for Smith Barney who allegedly hit a cyclist last July in the tony community of Vail, Colorado.

While at the wheel of his 2010 Mercedes-Benz, he allegedly hit 34-year-old surgeon Steven Milo from behind, struck a culvert, left the scene, and then called the car company's auto assistance service to ask that his car be towed because of damage. He did not contact law enforcement, court records show.

Dr. Milo is likely to experience pain for the rest of his life, according to his lawyer, and his ability to perform liver transplants is now jeopardized.

There are two reasons to raise an eyebrow at Erzinger. First, he will not face a felony conviction for hitting another person and fleeing the scene. Vail district attorney Mark Hurlbert offered him a plea bargain, saying, "Felony convictions have some pretty serious job implications for someone in Mr. Erzinger's profession."

In other words, your basic automotive journalist--for whom a felony conviction does not affect his ability to write--would be charged with a felony, but because Erzinger's livelihood might be threatened, he wasn't. Hmmmmm. Hurlbert said he had received more than 1,000 e-mails about the case, most critical of his decision.

But there's more. Erzinger's lawyer now claims that his client may have also have been affected by "new-car fumes." John Koziol of Koziol Forensic, an "accident reconstructionist" working for the accused, said he examined the month-old Mercedes-Benz and observed that it was emitting "new-car fumes."

In his report, Koziol said that, “Harmful and noxious gases emitted from the upholstery can infiltrate the driver's compartment and potentially alter the driver." The victim's lawyer crisply noted that there is no scientific basis for this conclusion.

Automakers are working to reduce such emissions, chiefly for customer satisfaction reasons. But if such a syndrome exists, one might reasonably expect hundreds of thousands of the 10 million or more new-car buyers in the U.S. each year to be similarly affected. There appears to be no such effect.

In fact, there's a much simpler explanation: Erzinger's lawyer has said his client suffers from sleep apnea, diagnosed one week after the accident, and briefly fell asleep behind the wheel, meaning he never knew he hit Milo.

(We remain perplexed; wouldn't that condition be narcolepsy, which in some states disqualifies the sufferer from holding a driver's license?)

One might think that any responsible person with such a condition would avoid driving. But perhaps the customs are different for wealthy guys in Vail.



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