Joe and Anne O’Connell, a Wisconsin couple that was taking a cross-country trip to California with their three children, died in a van accident June 14, 2009 on a four-lane rural stretch of highway in northeastern Iowa. According to a news report in The Wisconsin State Journal, the family’s Honda Odyssey van was being driven by the O’Connell’s’ 15-year-old daughter Sarah, who was getting some driving experience just a few months after getting her learner’s permit.

However, Sarah was the only one wearing a seatbelt. Joe and Anne as well as two of their children, Colman, 13, and Maeve, 10, were not buckled up at the time of the crash. The accident occurred 30 miles south of Dubuque, Iowa, when Sarah drifted the van onto the shoulder, overcorrected and rolled the van. The Honda Odyssey crossed the median, rolling at least twice before coming to a stop in the northbound lanes. Joe, Anne, Colman and Maeve, were all ejected from the van. Joe died at the scene and Anne died a few hours later. Maeve was in serious condition after surgery while Sarah and Colman sustained non life-threatening injuries. Iowa State Patrol officials say that the seatbelt saved Sarah O’Connell’s life.

I offer my deepest condolences to everyone who knew and loved the O’Connell family. Here was this wonderful family taking a summer road trip across the country – only to meet such a tragic car accident. Heartbreaking! Please keep the O’Connell children in your prayers. I wish Maeve, Colman and Sarah the very best for a quick and complete recovery from their injuries.

Based on the newspaper report, weather or road conditions were not factors in this fatal van crash. But the question is why did Sarah lose control of the van? Was it inexperience, error or was there a mechanical malfunction or a motor vehicle defect that caused the Honda van to go out of control? In such cases experienced auto product defect attorneys will be able to bring in nationally renowned crash experts to determine what happened. The family of the victims should carefully preserve the crashed vehicle in its current condition, unaltered, so it can be thoroughly examined by an expert for auto product defects, mechanical problems and other evidence.

If this van accident occurred because of an auto product defect, the O’Connell children may be able to file a product liability lawsuit against the car manufacturer and seek compensation for their damages and loss. No amount of money could ever replace a parent, let alone both parents. However, in cases where children have become orphaned, such compensation is invaluable and will help secure the children’s future.

This tragic car accident is also an important reminder for us all to wear our seatbelts. The U.S. Department of Transportation’s research studies show that drivers who are buckled up are 70 percent less likely to be killed in a car accident than drivers or passengers who are not wearing their seatbelts. Please buckle up and drive safely.