Are Vehicle Fires Always Product Liability Cases?

Natalie JaroszewskiAugust 22, 2022 5 minutes

In July 2018, the United States Fire Administration (USFA) published a Fire Report Series that found that the US averages 345 deaths and 1,300 injuries due to vehicle fires every year. Additionally, the report found that 80 percent of these fires occur in our everyday passenger vehicles. What is most startling though, is that "unintentional actions accounted for 38% [of the total] of highway vehicle fires," and while less than 1% of all vehicle fires were fatal, unintentional actions "accounted for 42 percent of fatal highway vehicle fires."

The USFA Fire Report defines unintentional actions as the result of either careless behavior or accidental actions but does not distinguish if these behaviors and actions are by the automakers or vehicle owners. However, the Fire Report strongly hints at vehicle defects as the cause of some of these fires.

"These fires are generally a result of mechanical problems, ranging from a faulty design in the vehicle to an improperly installed device."

TFRS Volume 19, Issue 2 | Highway Vehicle Fires (2014-2016)

Vehicle fires are extremely dangerous scenarios that can result in severe, life-alerting injuries and even death. Two questions must be answered after every vehicle fire:

  • "Why did the vehicle catch fire?" and;
  • "Was the vehicle fire avoidable" avoidable?"

First, vehicles have gas and if you smash them hard enough the gas will leak out and potentially come into contact with a heat source. So in some instances, a vehicle fire is unavoidable. However, there are times when a fire should not occur, but does anyway. In these cases, it may be because of a preventable defect in the vehicle, and then it may actually be the manufacturer who bears the blame for any resulting injuries or deaths. The area of the law that covers this scenario is known as product liability law.

A Brief Refresher of Product Liability Law

I asked award-winning attorney Michael Grossman to help explain this area of the law and here are the key takeaways.

When you buy a product from a manufacturer, there is an implicit promise or assumption that the product is not going to hurt or kill you beyond what the manufacturer warns you about. As an example, if I buy a chainsaw, there are numerous ways that the chainsaw could hurt or kill me that have to do with operating a well-made chainsaw. However, if the chainsaw I buy randomly blows up and injures me, well, that's not something chainsaws normally do. In that instance, the manufacturer would likely have to answer for making an exploding chainsaw.

Automakers specifically market vehicles as safe. When you purchase a vehicle you do so based on the representations the automaker makes, so if the manufacturer fails to uphold its promise, they're usually liable by default.

Product liability claims involving motor vehicles typically fall into two categories:

  • Unreasonably Dangerous Design:  A liability claim that a vehicle or vehicle part is unreasonably dangerous argues that a consumer is at risk when using the vehicle normally. For instance, if a vehicle ignites while idling in a parking space or driving on the highway, that is unreasonably dangerous.
  • Defective Vehicles or Parts: A liability claim focused on defects argues that an automaker improperly manufactured a vehicle and/or its parts. Errors in manufacturing can occur when automakers make, ship, or even install a vehicle part, and liability occurs when the part does not function as intended. For instance, if an airbag violently explodes sending metal shrapnel into passengers (ask Takata about this one), it might not be the initial design of the airbag that is the issue, but rather the installation or manufacturing of the airbag.

What does all this mean for people injured or killed due to vehicle fires?

Three Vehicle Fact Patterns of Particular Concern

Once you know that vehicle fires may have caused your injury, and you understand that the law affords certain rights to victims, it’s crucial to know just what kind of fires to be on the lookout for. While making an exact determination requires an expert to examine your vehicle, here are 3 common fact patterns that should concern anyone injured in a vehicle fire.

1. A Vehicle Is Not in a Collision and Ignites While Driving

While automakers cannot design any vehicle to never catch fire, they can design vehicles to perform their normal functions, without spontaneously combusting. There are several flammable fluids in a vehicle, sure, but if a fluid line (or any other part) breaks while someone is driving normally and the vehicle catches on fire, that is an issue. This is a pretty obvious product liability case.

2. A Vehicle Is Off, Not Involved in a Collision, and Ignites

This may sound like what I just wrote, but it's a bit different. Vehicles that are completely off should not spontaneously ignite, yet occasionally, they do. If a vehicle is off and catches fire, that is most likely an electrical issue, and it is again a red-flag that there may be a defect.

3. Vehicle Fires Due to or During a Collision

This section is a bit more complicated. If a fire occurs in a head-on collision, whether it was a result of a defect or not, the cause of the fire is extremely difficult to prove. This is mostly because directly involved in the crash are all of the flammable fluids, rubber hoses, and extremely hot elements. Naturally, a head-on collision has a higher risk of starting a vehicle fire. Additionally, since all those pieces end up crushed during the collision (and then burned in the resulting fire), investigation teams cannot always identify if the fire was specifically due to a defect.

Vehicle fires should almost never result from a low-speed impact (rear or side) or a rollover crash. Automakers have a responsibility to design vehicles in such a way that a rear-end collision (at a normal speed) does not cause a fuel tank to rupture and spill fuel onto hot surfaces, creating a fire.

A good example of rear-impact product liability are the Crown Victorias that Ford produced from 1992 to 2001. Starting in 2002, Ford provided an inexpensive plastic gas tank safety shield free of charge to Crown Victorias across the U.S. in 2002-03 but the Crown Victorias made from 1992 to 2001 still had easily puncturable fuel tanks that were consistently erupting into flames during rear-end collisions. It's difficult to argue that Ford's design wasn't defective.

Another instance where a vehicle should not catch fire is during a rollover/side impact crash. Obviously, with today's technology, we cannot design vehicles to never have a fatal crash, but over time our technology has allowed automakers to prevent fatalities in these specific crashes. Now if a vehicle rolls off the side of a cliff and plummets into a valley, that is not something we can reasonably expect automakers to account for. However, consumers do expect rollover collisions, without extreme drops, not to be fatal, and especially not firey.

"How Do I get the Help I Need?"

First, as I mentioned earlier, an expert must examine and determine that a defect caused the fire. Next, victims must obtain treatment for their injuries, and courts require claimants to document everything in a specific way. Documenting your medical records and the circumstances of your crash is difficult. While this is certainly a burden for someone injured due to a defect, it's the best way to ensure automakers produce quality products that do not injure the public.

If a victim is willing to do their part to force an automaker to face accountability for their actions, the court case could save others from dangerous products. Attorneys have the unique ability to force a company to make changes more quickly than regulators can, ensuring that consumers do not have to suffer unreasonable, preventable injuries.

For these reasons, those injured by defective vehicles often turn to experienced product liability attorneys, like those at Grossman Law Offices. Reputable firms, like ours, do not charge for consultations, and only collect an attorney’s fee if the client wins. If something doesn't add up in your crash, Grossman Law Offices would love to speak with you at (855) 971-2017. We answer the phones anytime, day or night.