If you spend any time reading about automotive defects (like airbag defects, crashworthiness, etc.), then you've probably heard the phrase safer alternative design.
What actually is safer alternative design and what is its legal significance? We'll answer both of those questions in this article.
What Does Safer Alternative Design Even Mean?
Safer alternative design basically means a better way to do things.
In the context of automobiles, there is an infinite number of ways that automakers can design a car. The government imposes certain minimum safety standards, but beyond that, automakers are given essentially free rein.
Sometimes automakers choose a design that lends itself toward occupant safety, and sometimes they don't. When someone is hurt in an accident and their injury is either caused by or made worse by some design element of the car, then the manufacturer of the car may be sued. The way that a manufacturer is found liable is that lawyers allege that they could have made the car safer and failed to do so. For that argument to fly, lawyers must show that there really was a better way to design the car, and this "better way" is what we call a safer alternative design.
How Do We Know That a Safer Alternative Design Exists?
The easiest way for a lawyer to show a court that a carmaker should be liable for a poorly designed and unsafe vehicle is to show that some other automaker does it better.
The exemplar in the automotive world is Volvo. Volvo makes incredibly safe cars, for the most part, so it is natural that lawyers hold Volvo up as a safer alternative design.
For example: Imagine that someone is T-boned in a Toyota Highlander and suffers catastrophic injuries. If lawyers can show that a Volvo XC90 (a comparable vehicle to a Toyota Highlander) would have taken that impact without the occupant suffering catastrophic injuries, the Volvo is held up as an example of a safer alternative design.
In short, we know a safer alternative design exists because some other manufacturer has already put it to use. And our legal arguments against the maker of the unsafe car basically amount to "you should have done it the same way they did."
How Do you Argue Safer Alternative Design in Court?
Alright, we know that manufacturers can be held liable if a plaintiff proves that their injury was either caused by or made worse by the design of their vehicle. But how exactly, do you argue safer alternative design in court?
It is not just a matter of saying there was an alternative design. As with all allegations, you (or your attorney) need to prove that
- there was a design defect that caused your injuries,
- a safer alternative design exists,
- a safer alternative design would have prevented or significantly reduce your injury(s),
- and that safer alternative design is economically and technologically feasible.
Look at it this way, a Honda Civic cannot be expected to provide the same rollover protection as a NASCAR racecar because the price points are so drastically different. If Honda created their Civic with a full roll cage the way NASCAR protects its drivers, then the Civic would literally double in price. As Civics are not worth $200,000, adding a roll cage to it would make the Civic virtually unsellable.
The concept of safer alternative design does not ask automakers to invent new technology or to never turn a profit. Instead, it simply expects manufacturers to use the safest possible design within reason.
Safer alternative design is a tool to hold companies accountable when they don't take reasonable steps to ensure that their cars are as safe as comparable cars from competitors.