Are Automakers Liable if a Roof Collapses in a Rollover Crash?

Natalie JaroszewskiSeptember 07, 2022 6 minutes

Rollover crashes account for less than 3% of all passenger vehicle accidents, but are responsible for almost 35% of all highway fatalities, according to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS).

Of course, automakers cannot create vehicles that will never be in a rollover crash; however, most people assume that rollover crashes will be deadly and there is nothing that automakers can do to protect individuals in rollover crashes.

Vehicle safety experts and industry watchdogs disagree with that assumption. They argue that, with today's technology and understanding of crash science, a vehicle's "survival space" should not deform, crunch, or squish during a rollover (unless there is an extreme scenario, that current technology cannot handle). The survival space of a vehicle is the middle section where the occupants sit, and to prevent crashes from being fatal, this central area must retain its shape.

Many automakers have begun producing vehicles with stronger roofs that do hold their shapes relatively well during a rollover crash. The issue is not every automaker is doing this. This means some vehicles will be inherently safer during a rollover than others.

For instance, automakers like BMW and Volvo are well known for prioritizing safety innovation and therefore are often on the cutting edge of various safety developments. This includes rollover protection. Other automakers may prefer to maintain the status quo, or an automaker could consider the needed extra time, money, and employees needed to develop better technology too costly.

We can't really blame those automakers though, can we? They are a business after all, and businesses only survive if they are profitable. They are still producing vehicles that pass the federal crash safety standards, and rollover crashes are statistically less common than other crashes. Why would roof strength be a priority for automakers?

Let's take some time to examine what a rollover crash is, what happens in a rollover crash, and why these automakers have the potential to be responsible for rollover injuries or deaths.

First, What Are Rollover Crashes?

A rollover crash is when a vehicle flips, tips, or rolls onto its side or roof. Statistically, the greatest causes of rollover crashes are speeding and intoxication.

According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), 40% of all fatal rollover crashes involve excessive speeding, almost 75% of fatal rollovers occur when the speed limit was 55 miles per hour or more, and almost half of all fatal rollovers involve alcohol. Basically, speeding drunks are responsible for the majority of rollover crashes.

However, not every rollover is a crazy dramatic turn on a highway. If 75% of rollovers are 55 mph or more, then a quarter of rollover crashes are low-speed crashes. Automakers do not have to produce cars that can survive any rollover crash but based on current technology, the roof should withstand crashes under 50 mph.

The textbook example of a rollover, which should not have been fatal, is a 2014 rollover crash in Georgia. A couple was driving in a 2002 F-250 when a tire "separated" from the F-250 sending them off the road in a rollover. The most horrifying aspect of the crash, though, are the photos of the F-250 afterward. The roof is completely flat like it was never there, to begin with. According to the plaintiff's attorney, the couple had no more protection than if they had been in a convertible. That's simply unacceptable.

What Makes Rollover Crashes So Dangerous?

Being in any type of crash can cause severe and even fatal injuries, but rollovers due to their violent nature (like head-on crashes) are much more dangerous than other types of collisions, due to two reasons, ejection and roof crush.

Roof crush is the biggest danger in rollover crashes, as the roof is the only piece of the vehicle between the occupant and other objects during such crashes. Additionally, stronger roofs crush less, reducing the risk that people will be injured by contact with the roof itself.

Rollover crash injuries are obviously worse if an occupant does not use a seatbelt, or if the forces of the crash cause the seatbelt to release. The force/movement of a rollover crash can eject unrestrained occupants fully or partially from the vehicle. With nothing between the occupant and objects outside the vehicle, the risk of injury or death skyrockets. This goes a long way to explaining why only 3% of all crashes are rollovers, but those crashes account for 35% of all fatalities.

Explaining Automaker Liability for Unnecessarily Dangerous Roofs

In most areas of the law, a defendant is only liable if they act with some degree of irresponsibility or malice. However, the law does not require people injured by "unreasonably dangerous" products to prove that a manufacturer created a product with any specific malice.

There are three general ways that manufacturers are liable for their defective products.

  • Express Warranty
  • Implicit Warranty
  • Strict Liability

Express Warranty

An express warranty is a promise that a seller makes to entice someone to purchase their product. For example, if a Yeti mug doesn't keep a liquid cold or hot as advertised, why would people purchase Yeti products?

Automakers specifically market and sell vehicles with assurances that the products are safe. For example, a car commercial could advertise a 5-star safety rating, automatic emergency braking, lane departure warnings, and many other safety features. If the car fails to do any of those advertised features, the manufacturer is liable for breaking the express warranty.

Implicit Warranty

An automaker is required to produce a vehicle that correctly functions as a vehicle. For example, a vehicle that randomly bursts into flames, while idling in a parking space, is clearly not functioning as a standard vehicle should. We expect vehicles to idle with no issues as it is a normal procedure for all vehicles.

Essentially, there is an assumed standard for all vehicles. When a consumer buys a vehicle, they expect a certain baseline safety and functionality standard inherent in the vehicle. By simply selling a vehicle, the automaker is holding its product to that assumed standard. If a vehicle fails to "be a vehicle" then the manufacturer is liable for breaking the implicit warranty.

How do we know what the assumed standard is? Well, if another manufacturer successfully produces a better product in a cost-effective manner, then there is a "reasonable alternative design" available. This means manufacturers have the responsibility of using all safer designs that are technologically and economically possible.

Strict Liability

Texas product liability law says if a product is so dangerous that it shouldn't have been sold in the first place, then the manufacturer is a fault for the resulting damages. No car should be made of glass as that is clearly very dangerous and will harm people. So if an automaker produces a glass car, they are strictly liable for the damages. Basically, manufacturers should know better than to use hazardous materials or bad designs.

Let's Put This All Together in the F-250 Roof Crush Scenario

If we consider a scenario such as the 2002 F-250 rollover crash in 2014, how do each of these three liabilities apply?

Unless Ford specifically said the roof was strong enough to withstand rollovers, it's doubtful there would be an express warranty. But the other two liabilities could certainly apply.

In this scenario, the couple purchased a vehicle with a roof instead of an open-top vehicle (think convertible), and it is easy to assume that they expected the roof of the F-250 to provide a superior level of protection compared to an open-top vehicle. Additionally in 2002, when Ford manufactured and sold the F-250, some automakers were already making stronger roofs. Ford had a duty to use those safer alternatives. Both of these are implied warranty.

Strict liability at first may not seem to apply in this fact pattern, however, think back to the F-250's roof after the crash. The roof was completely flat, as if the F-250 never had a roof, to begin with. An attorney could easily argue that any roof which crushes that significantly in a rollover is too dangerous, and as such Ford shouldn't have ever manufactured or sold such a roof.

Essentially, the F-250 roof did not support the weight of the vehicle as consumers would expect, and Ford had the ability to install a better roof than what was on the 2002 F-250s. Both of those reasons mean the roof was defective and that Ford eventually lost its case.

Every Roof Crush Case Should Be Examined for a Possible Product Defect

The children of the deceased couple in the F-250 case sought out legal help because they believed their parents shouldn't have died. Their attorney agreed, and they failed a lawsuit. During the lawsuit, the attorney was able to find 80 additional cases where the exact same roof had crushed an unacceptable amount. The jury awarded the plaintiffs (the children) $24 million and also ordered Ford to pay $1.7 billion in punitive damages. The punitive damages are because potentially 5.2 million pickups have the same defective roof design.

In a perfect world, no one would ever be in a rollover crash, especially a low-speed crash. In a slightly less perfect world, anyone injured (beyond basic medical care) in a rollover crash would immediately reach out to an experienced attorney, like Michael Grossman.

By seeking legal assistance, a victim will be able to have their crash circumstances examined by product defect experts to determine if there was a product defect. Additionally, a victim's attorney can bring in experts to conduct research on the wrecked vehicle's design to see if it could have been better. This research typically comes from independent lab tests, as well as the defendant's engineering documents, which the defendant will not willingly hand over to the victims.

A sad truth of our world is that the federal crash standards are the minimum, and automakers do everything they can to perfectly meet those standards. No more, no less. However, if automakers are capable of making safer cars (and vehicle safety experts say they are) then it is important for us to hold automakers accountable when they don't produce a safe vehicle. Product liability law allows those injured due to shoddy vehicles to do exactly that.