How Can You Tell When a Car Accident Was Caused by a Defect?

Michael GrossmanSeptember 02, 2015 6 minutes

Let's get one thing straight: as safe as automobiles have become, each year dozens if not hundreds of people are still killed by some sort of automobile defect or design flaw. This is a huge problem. To make matters worse, in addition to the deaths that are known to have been caused by defects with a vehicle, there are likely many hundreds or thousands of additional incidents of this kind that go unidentified.

This leads us to the question: how can you tell if an injury or fatality was caused by a defect or design flaw? In this article we'll describe the investigative process our firm utilizes in order to answer this question.

What is a Defect?

For simplicity's sake, we'll refer to all design flaws, manufacturing negligence, or just conventional defects, by using the term "defect." On that note, there are two kinds of scenarios we see frequently:

  1. When an accident was proximately caused by a defect of some kind
  2. When a normal accident occurs, but a defect causes the injuries to be worse than they would've otherwise been

Scenarios Where the Accident is Caused By a Defect

The first scenario breaks down like this: there are some defects that literally cause an accident. This includes things like: tire blow outs, steering or suspension component failures, spontaneous airbag engagement, brake system failures, suspension geometry/center of gravity design flaws (resulting in rollovers), electrical system failures, and engine/drive-train abnormalities.

To make this more concrete, let's discuss a couple of hypothetical situations.

  • Defective ignition switch

    Imagine someone is driving their Chevy Cobalt down the road, when the defective ignition switch issue causes a car that's traveling at 70 mph to suddenly turn off. Consequently, in an instant, the anti-lock brakes are disengaged, the power steering ceases to function, and the airbags are turned off. The driver is put in a position to quickly react, identify the problem, and know they have to pull the car over safely, put it in park, and then restart their car. This would be a perfect example of how an electrical system failure (technically speaking, a mechanical problem that causes the electrical system to turn off) results in a loss of control and disengages the car's basic safety features.

  • Tire blow out and rollover

    An SUV is being driven down the road when, due to a manufacturing flaw, the driver's side front tire explodes, causing an instantaneous loss of traction. This event, combined with an instantaneous weight transfer in a vehicle with a high center of gravity, results in a rollover.

  • Oil system design flaw

    Someone is driving down the highway in their economy car when the engine seizes due to a poorly designed oiling system. This causes the front wheels to instantaneously lock up, resulting in a loss of traction, ultimately leading to a collision.

  • Steering mechanism failures

    There are two main defects that can occur here. Either a mechanical part of the steering system can fail (such as a tie rod end becoming detached), or an electronic failure can occur. For most of the history of the automobile, your steering wheel was directly, mechanically linked to the steer wheels through a combination of parts, including the steering shaft and steering rack. In modern times, however, many cars are equipped with a steering system where there is an electrical link between the steering wheel and the front wheels. This drive-by-wire approach is little different than using a steering wheel on an arcade game. As you can imagine, problems can arise.
  • Brake System failures

    The most common cause of brake system failure is a failure in the hydraulic pressure subsystem. Simply put, fluid leaking from the hydraulic system can render the system incapable of generating the pressure necessary to activate the mechanical braking system, which means your car doesn't stop when it should.

    Like any other system on your car, the system degrades over time, but in some instances, a defect means that system begins to leak fluid long before a properly manufactured system would.
  • Defects with crash avoidance systems

    Crash avoidance systems come in different shapes and sizes, but fundamentally they consist of sensors feeding information to your car's computer, which under certain circumstances instruct your car to behave differently than the driver inputs tell it to.

    The most prominent example are collision avoidance systems that employ sensors to detect potential obstacles in your vehicle's path. Even when you press down on the gas, when these systems detect a potential collision, the car's computer will ignore your foot on the gas pedal telling it to go faster, and instead apply the brakes.

    Similarly, traction control systems measure inputs from your car's wheels to determine whether or not the car has traction with the road. If your inputs (i.e. pushing on the gas pedal) would lead to the car losing traction, the car's computer can override the driver's inputs, to avoid the car losing control.

    Given the importance of these systems to avoiding crashes, defects have the potential to lead to injury or death. Further, there are no agreed upon standards for when the technology should override driver inputs and when it should not. As a result, it's up to the manufacturer to determine how much these systems should intervene and what triggers their intervention. This means that not all crash avoidance systems avoid as many crashes as they should.
  • Unintended Acceleration

    In most modern cars, there is no mechanical connection between the gas pedal and the engine throttle. These vehicles have what is known as a drive by wire system. In such systems, the gas pedal merely sends an electric signal indicating that the driver wants to go faster. There are documented instances where defects in this system cause the car to accelerate without the driver's input.

    Even on a car with a mechanical throttle linkage, it can get stuck, causing unintended acceleration. You don't need me to tell you that when your car accelerates without you pushing on the gas it can lead to accidents.

Scenarios a Defect Makes Things Worse

Now let's consider the second category: the defect doesn't cause the accident but it makes it worse. Defects that make accidents worse include poorly designed crash structures, airbags, seatbelts, etc. that just fail to perform as they should.

An obvious example would be a poorly designed fuel tank that results in an explosion during a 20-mph collision. Naturally, a 20-mph collision should be survivable. But if a fuel tank is ruptured and a fire breaks out, it can easily turn deadly.

Such a hypothetical situation may sound completely crazy to those of you outside the legal industry, but all the situations above are actual cases that have happened, and we've been involved in litigating them. The tricky aspect of such cases is fairly obvious, especially in the latter case. It is very difficult for the police to investigate, and laypersons aren't aware that any of this stuff is happening.

Victims Can't Rely on the Authorities to Spot Vehicle Defects

A proper investigation is the only way to determine whether an injury or death was caused by a vehicle defect. Most people assume that the authorities look for defects as part of their investigation. Unfortunately, this is not the case. In fact, police reports often miss tell-tale signs of a vehicle defect.

Let me give you an example. According to the Texas A&M Transportation Institute, 94% of Texas use a seatbelt. However, when looking at crash report data, close to 0% of vehicle ejection victims were wearing a seatbelt at the time of their crash. In order for these numbers to make sense, only people who were not wearing seatbelts could be ejected from their vehicle during a crash. We know that this isn't true.

There are documented instances, litigated in court, which show seatbelt anchors detaching from the frame of the car, tensioners not working properly and permitting the occupant to slip out of the seatbelt, or even crashes where the victim accidently struck the button to unlatch their seatbelt as they were tossed about in the wreck. Couple the existence of these crashes with the fact that almost everyone wears a seatbelt and it's clearly impossible that no person ejected during a crash was wearing a seatbelt.

Unfortunately, most investigators lack the training and resources to properly look for a vehicle defect. If it's not obvious, like a tire blow-out, they're going to miss it. In fact, it's impossible to do a proper defect investigation at a crash site, which is where most police investigations begin and end. So if the police report in your crash doesn't indicate that a vehicle defect was to blame, that doesn't rule out the possibility that one caused your crash.

How Do We Determine if Your Crash Was Caused by a Vehicle Defect?

Most of the defect investigations that we launch begin with a victim who feels that something wasn't right about there crash. For instance, when a police report says that their loved one wasn't wearing a seatbelt, but they knew that person very well and never saw them without wearing a seat belt, while in car, that's something that just doesn't add up.

They'll then reach out to a firm like mine and share their story and explain their belief that the official account just doesn't seem like it's the whole story. We're not in the business of giving false hope to victims. If upon hearing their concerns we believe there is an explanation for their injury or loved one's death that doesn't involve a vehicle defect, we'll tell them right then and there. If however, the official version of the crash still doesn't make sense, we'll tell them that as well.

At that point, we'll take on the client and open a proper investigation. If you recall the seatbelt issue mentioned earlier, the one police routinely miss, detecting a seatbelt defect involves examining the car's computer (which police rarely do), gathering physical data from the vehicle and crash site, and often taking that data and running it through physics simulators to get an idea what actually occurred during the crash.

Armed with the evidence that a vehicle defect occurred, we've been able to pursue our clients' claims against manufacturers who do not make safe vehicles. Taking action makes a real-world difference. While innovation and government regulation play a role in making cars safer, the heavy lifting is done by holding automakers accountable when they screw up.