A Guide to Dangerous Defective Automobile Litigation
No one has ever said, "If you lower the asking price of your vehicle by $5, I'll let you kill my family." Yet, automakers have routinely appeared in courtrooms across America and argued to juries that certain vehicle failures could not possibly be avoided; that is, unless consumers were willing to pay increased costs for vehicles. And some of the issues in controversy have literally involved the manufacturer's exclusion of safety equipment that would cost as little $5 per vehicle to implement.
The cold, hard reality is that, despite the monumental progress made over the years, you can still buy cars in this day and age that fail to work in a safe manner, resulting in catastrophic injuries or death. Many years ago, such phenomenon was perhaps forgivable, and maybe you could chalk car maker's transgressions up to simple ignorance or lack of technological prowess. However, in the modern era, all of the mystery of crash science are gone, and automakers know how to create safe vehicles. Despite this knowledge, what they may not know how to do is create safe vehicles that also help them turn the type of profit they prefer, and when given an option to choose between sacrificing profits or consumer safety, automakers often take calculated risks designed to save themselves minimal expense, which will cost their customers their wellbeing or their lives.
When such an event transpires, the victim of the accident is often empowered by law to pursue an automotive defect case against the manufacturer of their vehicle, wherein they may seek compensation for injuries or the loss of a loved one.
- What the law has to say about auto defects
- Common types of auto defects
- The cause of auto defects
- Injuries caused by defective cars
- What we expect of automakers
- The type of compensation you can sue for
- The case flow process
What is an Automobile Defect Case?
When we refer to "auto defects," we're not talking about a customer's right to sue when a car doesn't get the advertised gas mileage or when the engine fails to make the advertised horsepower. Rather, we're referring to design or manufacturing flaws which compromise safety.
Typically, these cases center around a safety system failing to work as it should, or a basic inability of the car to behave in a wreck in a manner consistent with consumer expectations. Which brings us to a very important point: the entirety of dangerous auto litigation is based on this concept of consumer expectations. When determining whether a car has met its obligation to protect its occupants, the essential question being asked is, "What did the car's occupants think the car would do in an accident, as predicated upon the impression of safety created by the car's maker?"
The simple fact of the matter is that, in the absence of federal regulation related to a particular safety aspect, automakers could sell a car that is patently dangerous and woefully inadequate yet still avoid practically all liability. To accomplish this, they need only have customers sign a release and disclaimer form which explains to the buyer that the car they're buying is, in fact, dangerous and is likely to kill them or a loved one. If the buyer is willing to take that risk and sign the release, the manufacturer can meet the bare minimum federal standards and sell a vehicle that is quite dangerous.
But therein lies the rub. There is not a single automaker in America who advertises "barely safe" vehicles or cars that are "almost good enough in rollovers." In actual fact, every single car and truck manufacturer that sells cars in this country advertise their vehicles as being sufficiently safe, knowing that safety-conscious consumers are being told exactly what they want to hear. According to a recent study conducted by Consumer Reports National Research Center, 65% of car buyers cite safety as their primary consideration when buying a new car. Consequently, automakers market their cars as being safe in order to appeal to the buying motivators of consumers. But marketing vehicles in such a fashion is precisely what opens a manufacturer to liability. Simply put, when you sell cars that you claim are safe, you must deliver on that promise. If manufacturers fail to deliver, they can be held liable.
Claims against carmakers for injuries caused by design flaws, etc. are not conventional personal injury cases. When a car runs a red light and strikes a pedestrian, the pedestrian sues the driver of the car on the basis that the driver was negligent.
On the contrary, cases brought against the manufacturer of goods (including cars), following an injury caused by an inherent flaw within the good, are based on a theory of products liability, not a negligence theory. While the difference between negligence cases and products liability cases are manifold, the main distinction is that the manufacturers of products are liable for products that cause harm because they are the ones who made the products and represented that they were safe, not because they were careless. In auto defect cases, the manufacturer often was not negligent (careless), since many times they consciously knew that what they were doing would cause harm.
- That the product posed an unreasonable risk of harm
- That a safer version of the product was both technologically and economically feasible to make
- That the defect or unsafe aspect of the product was the proximate cause of the victim's injuries (as opposed to a defect being present but it did not play a role in the injuries)
If those elements can be proven, the carmaker is more or less liable by default (it varies slightly from state to state). Naturally, those are the elements that the carmaker will dispute.
In past auto defect cases, automakers have focused primarily on the last two elements. We have seen numerous versions of the argument that the cost of adding certain safety equipment is simply cost prohibitive, yet their estimates are always questionable, at best. But perhaps the most absurd arguments they use to defend themselves are arguing against proximate cause.
When a defendant (in any personal injury case) implores a proximate cause argument, they are essentially stating that they may have indeed done something careless or foolish, but something other than their carelessness or foolishness caused the plaintiff's injuries.
In some cases, that is a fair argument to make. Imagine, for instance, that you run a stop sign and hit another car. The accident is pretty minor and you are uninjured. You get out of your car to exchange info with the other driver only to find that they are quite severely injured. Come to find out, there were not wearing their seatbelt, so what should have been a non-injurious accident resulted in major injuries. If that person sues you, surely your lawyer would articulate a proximate cause defense that reads like, "Yes, my client ran the stop sign. However, the plaintiff would not have been injured if they were wearing a seatbelt. Therefore, my client caused the accident, but the plaintiff's conduct caused the injuries."
As it relates to auto defect litigation, carmakers have created many clever proximate cause arguments that would leave most people versed in common sense with a puzzled look on their faces. For instance, in roof crush rollover cases, plaintiffs are injured when their vehicle rolls and the roof structure is not adequate to support the car's own mass, resulting in a roof that "squishes" inward, leaving no gap between the victim's head and the ground.
For years, certain auto manufacturers argued that there was simply no link between this sudden lack of headroom and severe spinal injuries, brain injuries, or death. They reasoned that when a car rolls over, a person suffers their head or spinal injury when the car first hits the ground, but before the roof collapses. Think about that for a second. Essentially, they're arguing that the car rolls and is temporarily upside down, an occupant then shoots toward the roof/ ground and hits their head on the perfectly intact/ not-yet-deformed roof, they then suffer their injury, and THEN the roof crushes inward, ergo, the roof crush doesn't cause the injury, simply rolling over causes the injury.
The only problem with this theory is that it's a complete lie. When a car rolls, the car and the occupant are traveling at the same speed.
What causes the driver to be ejected toward the roof/ ground is when the vehicle suddenly comes to a stop as its roof contacts the ground. This initial impact projects the occupant out of their seat and toward the roof. So the force that ejects the occupant toward the roof is produced by the roof hitting the ground, therefore, simple logic tells us that the occupant is only ejected after the roof makes contact with the ground. In order for this theory to be true, the occupant would need to cover the distance between their head and the roof faster than it would take the roof to crush inward, yet the roof crushing action already has a head start since that process began before the occupant ever left their seat. Unlikely.
The takeaway here is that rather than admit that they failed to design a car whose roof could support it's own weight in a rollover, certain automakers invented a theory that basically said, "Yes, our roof crushed, but the occupant was already dead or injured by the time that happened." The unintended irony of this flawed argument is that inevitably leads to the question of, "Why didn't the seat belt keep the occupant from shooting toward the ceiling in the first place?" Which leads us to our next topic: what exactly should consumers expect to happen in an accident?
How Should a Car Behave in an Accident?
We mentioned earlier that crash science is no longer a great mystery. Out of the years of research by both government and private sector organizations, we have a clear understanding what needs to happen to keep an accident from turning deadly:
- The "survival cell" of the vehicle needs to retain its shape entirely.
- Seatbelts, airbags, windows and doors need to keep the car's occupants in an ideal position throughout the accident.
- The survival cell integrity means nothing if occupants can bounce around inside the cell, striking hard objects, and/or if the occupants are ejected from the vehicle
- Direct impact energy away from occupants.
- Protect the fuel cell to avoid fires.
Now, there are certainly accidents which can occur that are so severe that no amount of engineering can protect the occupants. For example, if a car crashes into a large enough tree at 100mph, all of the safety features in the world that can be reasonably packed into a car will do nothing to protect the driver and their passengers. Since there are accident for which no amount of engineering with save the day, where do we draw the line? At what point is a manufacturer free and clear of lawsuits, and at what point should they be sued?
The answer is actually fairly straightforward. When an accident cannot possibly be survived using readily available safety technology, car manufacturers are not liable. We are not asking them to build indestructible cars. But when an accident imparts impact forces that do not reach the threshold for serious human injury or death, yet an occupant dies because the car deforms around them, crushes them, they strike something hard within the vehicle, they are ejected (entirely or partially) from the vehicle, or the vehicle catches fire, something went wrong and the vehicle didn't do what it should.
Another way to explain what we expect from carmakers is with an analogy. Surely, we'd all agree that a homebuilder can't be expected to make inexpensive houses that will withstand a direct hit from a Category 5 hurricane. However, if even an inexpensive home was destroyed by a 30 mph wind, everyone would agree that the house was poorly constructed. That's what we're talking about here. If a car gets hit by a freight train and everyone on board is killed, that's hardly the fault of an automaker. But if a 30 mph collision occurs and a Jeep Grand Cherokee bursts into flames, that is an unacceptable outcome.
The best argument that plaintiffs have against auto manufacturers that sell dangerous cars is found in all of the not-dangerous cars on the road. Several manufacturers (particularly Volvo) a stated mission goal of protecting occupants which has led to the development of refined engineering processes, safety test procedures, and design protocol that have made their vehicles incredibly safe. In other words, while some manufacturers have invested heavily in legal defense and denial strategies, others have invested in actual safety improvements.
Specifically, while many domestic SUV manufacturers have argued that you can't possibly build SUVs that don't kill or paralyze their occupants in a rollover, other manufacturers are building SUVs that can rollover numerous times without inflicting any significant injury on their occupants. Does that mean that Volvo makes vehicles that are perfectly safe? No, of course not. But the point remains that they make a concerted effort to produce safe vehicles, and their results speak for themselves.
Another good argument that plaintiffs have against defendants in these cases is the fact that certain safety capabilities have actually regressed. If you look at videos of cars from the 60s and 70s, an era when suspension design was so inadequate that cars rolled over if you so much as stared too hard at the steering wheel, you can find no shortage of vehicles being piloted by amateurs on race tracks, wherein they lose control and toll their car. In most of these videos, you'll see these cars roll with minimal deformation of the roof. Now, it should be pointed out that every other part of these cars is horrendously unsafe, yet they could cars 50 years ago that fared better in roof crush terms than many cars of today.
Make no mistake about it, car and truck manufacturers understand the danger, yet they often decide to shortcut safety in order to gain a competitive advantage, all the while still touting the safety of their vehicles. That is utterly unacceptable.
Common Types of Auto Defects
Some of the more common problem areas within cars are:
- Tire defects
- Either a vehicle is equipped with the wrong type of tire for the vehicle's intended purpose (as was the case with Ford Explorers in the 90s) or the tire simply fails while driving, either resulting in a catastrophic loss of control.
- Airbag defects
- Airbags either fail to deploy as the were programmed to do, or the automaker failed to program them to deploy during an accident scenario that they should indeed deploy in. For instance, many airbag systems do not know how to react when a vehicle rolls over, yet the airbags would help substantially in many rollover incidents if they were simply programmed correctly.
- Mechanical failures
- Everything from differentials that lock up to malfunctioning steering a brake systems, often times, vehicles simply stop driving correctly, resulting in a loss of control.
- Seatbelt defects
- Seatbelts seem so simple, yet they experience complex forces and loads that can cause them to disconnect when they're needed most. Fortunately, there are testing procedures which can determine whether a seat belt came loose during an accident, or whether it simply was not in use.
- Structural defects
- This includes roof crush resistance, side impact resistance, crumplezone effectiveness, or the effectiveness load-bearing paths to deflect crash forces away from the survival cell.
- Fires and explosions
- Door and window failures
- Doors need to stay shut in accidents, and windows need to all be laminated as to avoid shattering. Closed windows and doors keep the occupants and their appendages inside the car, yet many otherwise survivable accidents cause doors to fly open, exposing passengers to needless harm.
How Automobile Defect Cases Work
These are not cases that can usually be settled without the need for litigation. These cases are usually hard-fought, and that all begins by having an attorney and his team of vehicle systems experts investigate the vehicle to identify problem areas, and then they must file suit soon thereafter. These cases are time sensitive. Further, the vehicle (or vehicle component) that is alleged to have failed must be retained throughout the duration of the case. Far too often, our firm is contacted by potential clients who would have a strong case, but they waited too long before contacting us, and the vehicle was long since destroyed.
Once suit is filed, your ability to bring your case (the "cause of action") is preserved indefinitely, allowing your attorneys and their expert witnesses to further evaluate the alleged failure. Soon thereafter, both sides will exchange information in a process called "discovery." During discovery, your lawyer will use the authority of the court to compel the defendants to provide information (mostly internal documents) necessary to learn how or why the defect occurred. Once this information is fleshed out, both sides will have a better idea of the evidence that a jury will see, thereby enabling a discussion of potential jury verdicts. If the defendants feel strongly that a jury will make them pay, they are likely to offer a settlement to avoid the uncertainty of trial. However, if the defendants are not convinced that you will win, then a trial will likely occur.
Additionally, there are a few characteristics of an auto defect case that make it a good case. However, it's easier to list the characteristics that make it a bad case. They include:
- Accidents in which the defect causes only minor injuries
- You'll never be able to justify the cost of taking your case to trial if the injuries are minor. These cases cost tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars in court costs to litigate, so it is imperative that cases are only pursued wherein there is a lot on the line. Winning a case just to make enough money to pay for the cost of pursuing your case doesn't do you any favors.
- Accidents wherein the victim was intoxicated or under the influence.
- As harsh as it may sound, this taints the case too much. Juries feel sorry for someone who was either involved in an accident they didn't cause at all, or involved in an accident that they did cause, but through an honest mistake, yet their car was poorly designed and changed a minor mistake into a life-altering injury. If the injured party is intoxicated, juries will judge them too harshly.
- Accidents wherein no one could possibly have avoided injury.
- Remember, cars are not expected to be indestructible. They need only not hurt or maim their occupants when the accident should be survivable. If your claim is predicated upon an accident that no amount of engineering would have changed the outcome, the case should not be pursued.
- Accidents involving cars that are more than 15 years old
- That is to say, cars that were sold more than 15 years ago. The model year is irrelevant; it's all about the date of sale. Once the car is more than 15 year old, manufacturers bear no further liability.
- Accidents where injury or death happened more than 2 years ago
- Texas has a two year statute of limitations. A statute of limitations is the shelf-life of your cause of action (right to sue). All causes of action expire after some period of time, and injury and fatality causes of action have only a two year window under Texas law. Just to clear up any confusion, the statute of repose has nothing to do with the statute of limitations, and vice versa. BOTH dates need to be considered. For instance, if you were injured by a defective car that was sold in 2013 and you were injured in 2014, then neither the statute of repose or the statute of limitations has expired. But if the accident happened in 2014 involving a 1990 model car, the statute of repose has expired.
Lastly, if your case is successful, you can be compensated for any of the following losses that your attorneys can prove you sustained (on behalf of yourself or a loved one):
- Mental anguish
- Pain and suffering
- Lost wages and loss of earning capacity
- Medical bills
- Loss of consortium
- Loss of society
- Funeral expenses
- Loss of inheritance
- Further, in cases where an auto manufacturer willfully hid a defect from consumers or wherein their conduct was otherwise found by a jury to constitute gross negligence, you may be awarded punitive damages.
Most automobiles on the road today are safe, and that's no accident. Those vehicles were made safe by through meticulous analysis and painstaking effort on behalf of their designers. Most of the vehicles for which safety was not a high priority will likely prove to be dangerous to consumers under the right circumstances. Products liability law was developed by lawmakers and the courts to address these concerns by way of providing means of obtaining compensation for those who were injured, from those who caused the harm by failing to build safe cars when their competitors are able to do so.