Many accidents are caused by or made worse because of a defective or poorly designed automobile. Whether we're talking about a tire defect, an airbag failure, a seatback failure, or a vehicle that is incapable of surviving a rollover, auto defects happen every day across America.
And when victims sue the automaker, you can guarantee that the automaker will fire back with a tried and true defense: The accident was actually caused by driver error.
In other words, the default position of automakers is to blame the people who sued them, the victims in the accident. Naturally, this leads to an important question. If the defendant in an auto defect case always blames the driver, how do we rule out driver error?
Answer: We must investigate thoroughly and then form strong arguments based on the evidence.
What's the Idea Behind the "Blame the Driver" Defense Tactic?
Netflix recently aired a documentary about the alleged safety defects of the Boeing 737 Max. The filmmakers explain how Boeing allegedly installed a system called "MCAS" that was supposed to adjust the plane's pitch (nose up or nose down) when a pilot does something wrong behind the stick. The supposed problem, however, is that Boeing never told pilots about MCAS, so when it malfunctioned and pointed the plane toward the ground because it thought the plane was pointing unnaturally skyward, pilots had to figure out in real time how to override a system they never heard of.
Several pilots were faced with this scenario, resulting in two catastrophic plane crashes—one in Indonesia and one in Ethiopia—which claimed the lives of hundreds of people.
So, to recap, Boeing allegedly: installed a secret pitch correction system, didn't train pilots on it, and made it such a powerful system that it overrode the pilots' input on the stick when they tried to undo what the system was doing.
And what did Boeing do in the aftermath of this calamity? You guessed it, they blamed the "driver" by asserting that pilot error was the cause of each crash.
The point is, even in the most extreme of circumstances, with the direst consequences, major manufacturers will blame the driver rather than admit that their poorly designed vehicle caused an accident. If you were hurt by a defective car, you can absolutely expect them to do the same thing in your case.
Victims Must Plan for the "Blame the Driver" Argument and Investigate Accordingly
Since we know that without a doubt an automaker who gets sued for a defect is going to blame the accident on driver error, accident victims will need evidence at the ready to counter that argument. This will require a private, in-depth inspection conducted by a qualified expert in the field of accident reconstruction.
The main piece of evidence examined in such an investigation is the allegedly defective vehicle itself. That car or truck is the star of the show, evidentiary speaking. So, it is crucial that it is inspected ASAP.
What investigators are going to look for is anything which clearly shows that the driver's inputs were normal and then the car did something it wasn't supposed to do.
But Investigation is Only Part of It; You Must Also Argue Effectively
Where lawyers really earn their keep is not in overseeing investigations by expert witnesses. Rather, it's by framing the accident in such a way that the jury finds the lawyer's arguments convincing. Some matters are truly open to interpretation. And when there is no definite legal answer, it's up to a jury to decide which party to the suit has the more convincing argument.
For instance, if two drivers both run a stop sign at a four-way stop and injure one another, a jury could find that only one of the drivers is to blame, one of the drivers is more to blame than the other but they're both partially to blame, neither are to blame, or some other person or entity is to blame. Which way a jury goes is based in large part on how the case is argued.
Imagine that one of the drivers in the above hypo is a regular motorist and the other is a delivery driver. A lawyer might take the approach of arguing that a professional driver owes a higher duty to the public when behind the wheel than does a typical driver, so his failure to follow the rules of the road is a greater sin than the same misconduct by a regular driver. That might be all a jury needs to hear to side with one party over the other. The point is, investigating and gathering evidence is half the battle. The other half is forming good arguments that juries find persuasive.
Examples of How We Rule Out Driver Error
Example 1: Bob's SUV rolls over, and Bob is paralyzed in the accident. Ford, the manufacturer of Bob's SUV, takes the position that Bob is to blame for the accident. They contend that Bob was driving like a maniac and made an abrupt lane change, which caused the SUV to flip. We send our accident reconstructionists to inspect the SUV, and they pull the vehicle's electronic data. It shows that Bob was driving 40 mph in a 45 zone, that he was driving straight for an extended period of time, and that there was an abrupt lane change maneuver immediately before the rollover. We speak with eyewitnesses who explain that a deer ran into Bob's path, and he swerved to avoid hitting it. Our reconstructionists look at the tire marks and see that Bob only steered out of his lane by about 10 feet laterally, and then went back into his lane and overcorrected. Putting all this together, we can safely say that what Bob did was make a fairly ordinary lane change maneuver to avoid an obstacle, something that his SUV should have been able to perform without rolling over. But since this normal maneuver was done and the result was a catastrophic loss of control, that supports the idea that a defective design is more to blame than driver error.
You can see how easy it would be for Bob to lose his case if not for such a thorough investigation.
Example 2: Shantel is driving her Honda when she fails to keep a proper lookout and rear-ends the car in front of her at 25 mph. Shantel's airbag deploys, and she suffers a near fatal laceration to her neck when shrapnel from the airbag slices her open. Naturally, Honda will blame her for causing the accident, and rightly so. At this point, you may be thinking, "Hey, wait a minute. I thought this was an article about how to rule out driver error. So why are you telling me that in this accident Shantel caused the wreck?" Ah, but the devil is in the details. Honda can rightly claim that Shantel's driver error caused the airbag to be deployed in the first place, but driver error didn't make the airbag shoot shrapnel. What is the purpose of an airbag? Is it to be a device that only deploys to help the righteous, or is it a device that is meant to protect anyone and everyone, regardless of what caused them to need it? Should airbags be allowed to make value judgments before deploying? Of course not, so the issue of how the accident in the first place is beside the point, and the real issue here is whether the airbag did what airbags are supposed to do. Here, it didn't. In fact, in did something horrible that no properly designed airbag should do, and in the process converted a survivable minor wreck into a near-fatal calamity.
You can see how in order to win, Shantel's lawyers will need to be able to form good arguments. The evidence alone won't win her case.
The Burden Is on Us to Show That Driver Error Was NOT the Cause of an Accident
In an auto defect case, a products liability attorney must show that driver error is not the proximate cause for the injuries. As explained above, this is done with evidence and good arguments. If you or a loved one has been injured by a defective or poorly designed vehicle, please call us for a free consultation.