When Ralph Nader published Unsafe at Any Speed in 1965, he brought attention to a systemic problem in the mass production of automobiles. Although his book centered around one particular car – the Chevrolet Corvair (manufactured from 1960-1969) – it led to the exposure of a profit-over-safety pandemic that infected the entire automobile manufacturing industry.
Automobile safety has been a headline item for nearly as long as the automobile has been around, and some of the most publicized product liability cases in U.S. history have featured defects in cars, trucks, buses and off-road vehicles. While automobiles are infinitely safer today, defects and part failures still pose a danger to drivers and passengers. Many of the defective items are those designed to make us safer.
Among the many things on an automobile that can fail due to defective manufacturing or defective design are listed below.
This is a design flaw that makes SUVs far more likely to roll over than standard vehicles.
This is related to the weight distribution issue. Some vehicles do not corner as well as they should, and some vehicles develop a serious condition known as “death wobble” at highway speeds.
Passengers put their trust in the safety gear that is installed in modern cars – air bags, seat belts, toddler car seat latches, head restraints, passenger compartment padding and more. If any of these devices fail to deploy, break, rip or become unlatched, passengers are put at risk.
While crashes at extremely high speeds reduce most cars to jagged scrap metal, there is the expectation that the vehicle’s outer shell and framework would absorb enough of the energy of a typical collision to prevent impact injury to its occupants. Some economy cars score poorly in this category in crash tests, although they still must meet minimum federal standards.
Tires don’t blow out quite as often they used to, but they still suffer from belt separation and tread defects. Failures can arise from manufacturing defects or design defects.
You may recall some of the details of the 1981 Grimshaw v Ford suit, claiming that the Ford Motor Company knew of a flaw in the design of the gas tank for the Ford Pinto and continued to sell the model in spite of this flaw. A woman was killed and a 13-year-old passenger in her car suffered disfiguring burns when their car’s gas tank exploded in a rear-end collision. Fuel systems are rife with hazards by nature, from the tank to the engine, and federal standards put great emphasis on the ability of the fuel system to withstand collisions, heat and wear.
This is when a car supposedly accelerates on its own, without the driver’s interaction on the pedal. In the early 2010s, a series of claims against Toyota and Audi brought about recalls and drew national attention to the problem. Car makers in general continue to rally behind the premise that the accidents were due to driver error – pedal error, to be precise – and not due to an inherent problem with the cars.
In 2015, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) appeared to side with the car makers when it said, “The NHTSA has not identified any defects with the vehicles that can explain simultaneous failures of the throttle and brake systems.”
The modern automobile is a marvel of design, technology, craftsmanship and usefulness, and people have developed deep relationships with their cars. Every year, Americans spend the equivalent of 18 entire days in their cars (source). With that much time behind the wheel, it is not surprising that automobile accidents are among the leading causes of injuries and deaths in the U.S.
The overwhelming majority of those crashes were due to driver error. The errors include distracted driving, speeding, driving under the influence, failing to maintain braking distance, failing to adjust for weather conditions and errors of judgment (which opens up an additional subset with many variations).
The number of accidents caused by defects in the automobiles are much lower, but still significant. According to a study by the NHSTA, these are the leading causes of defect-related automobile crashes:
For the most part, if a defective part or product came on the car you bought as original equipment, liability rests with the manufacturer. The implied warranty involves the buyer and the car manufacturer, even if the product that failed was made by another company (and most are).
The issue gets more complicated when the buyer adds devices or accessories made by a company that was not part of the original assembly or contributes to the risk by not operating the product in the prescribed manner.
In order for a plaintiff or his defective product attorney to successfully litigate a product liability claim, the defective product must be shown to be the precise cause of the plaintiff’s injury. Mishaps that occur due to the plaintiff’s ignorance on how to use the product, or due to his dismissal of the safety warnings reduce, or even eliminate liability on the part of the manufacturer. (It varies by state.)
Some states apportion the recovery (amount of money to be collected by the plaintiff) based on the percentage of fault in the accident. If the plaintiff was found to be 25 percent at fault in the accident (not in comparison to the other driver, but to the product failure), then his recovery will be reduced by 25 percent. This is known as the comparative negligence rule and applies in all but a handful of U.S. states.
You should not let contributory negligence derail your claim altogether. The opposing side would love it if you did and will likely make a motion for the whole case to be thrown out because of your contributory negligence. But the law is still on your side if a defective product fails, even if it was partially your fault.
If you were driving 84 miles per hour in a 70-mile-per-hour zone and your car developed a bad wobble that you could not control, leading to a crash, the car manufacturer would still be at least partially liable in most instances. The insurance adjuster, or their product liability lawyer could say that your speed is what caused the accident, and that you have no case as a result. That is a bluff, an attempt to get you to drop your claim or accept a lowball settlement offer.
It is within the implied warranty theory for you to reasonably expect your car to be as free of defects at 84 miles per hour as it is at 70 miles per hour. You might get some money shaved off your court-ordered settlement because of your speeding, but the overall claim is still valid.
Many product liability cases have ended in rulings for the defendant because the plaintiff used the automobile for some purpose other than its intended use. It is a strong defense that carries a lot of weight in court, but it is not unassailable.
The manufacturer is required to anticipate foreseeable misuse and alterations of the product and develop the product with that in mind. The key is the word “foreseeable.” It is foreseeable that a driver would exceed the speed limit. It is foreseeable that a driver would take a turn too fast. It is foreseeable that an owner would tint windows too darkly. The manufacturer can’t be expected to envision all of the many ways in which a vehicle could be altered or misused, however, and this can become a major point of discussion in court or in negotiations.
If the product failure is directly connected to alteration or misuse by the owner, and if there are ample, clear warnings present, the defense has a strong case. The manufacturer may opt to make a good faith settlement offer to protect its image, but a plaintiff should not expect it to be a particularly generous offer.
You can sue a car manufacturer for damages resulting from the failure of a defective part or system that’s part of your car. Since car assembly plants use parts from a multitude of suppliers, it can be reasoned that the car manufacturer was unaware of problems with any part from any of those suppliers.
The car manufacturer can then sue the company that made the defective part. When that happens, the part maker becomes a third party defendant in the case. It doesn’t absolve the car manufacturer from its liability, but it does give recourse to at least a portion of the loss it incurs in settling with the plaintiff.