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:
- When an accident was proximately caused by a defect of some kind
- When a normal accident occurs, but a defect causes the injuries to be worse than they would've otherwise been
When the accident results from 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.
When a defect makes things worse.
Now let's consider the second category: a defect that makes an accident caused by another event worse. Defects that make it worse include poorly designed: crash structures, airbags, seatbelts, etc. that just fail to perform as they should. For instance, poorly designed fuel tanks that result in a fatal explosion during what should've been a survivable accident. The distinction here is that the defects weren't the proximate cause of the accident, or the event but for which it would not have occurred. Someone gets rear-ended in a 30 mph collision, and instead of it being a routine fender-bender, the car blows up as a result of the defect.
These hypothetical situations 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.
How do we determine this happened?
The answer is good investigative work. Rather than explaining all the techniques used to flush out defects, let's look at a one of the hypotheticals from above and explain how we would identify what happened in the accident. Let's look specifically at the Chevy Cobalt accident. Let's say the driver lost control of the car, veered off the road, and hit a tree. The police report said the driver simply lost control, and the wreck was not the result of any type of defect. Let's look a little closer.
If the accident was caused by a defect, we would expect to see these things when we investigated the accident. We discover that the airbag did not deploy, which is a red flag. This could indicate that the car was not on at the time of the crash. When we looked at the skid marks, they would be long and without interruption. That tells us that the anti-lock brakes were not functioning. Additionally, we can see evidence that the car made a sudden and severe change of direction towards the tree. This could indicate that the power steering failed. Lastly, and this would be conclusive, if we were to look at the cars computer, it records everything that happens while the car is turned on. If all the data looks like normal road happenings and then stops, that means the car was off (the ignition switch failed) causing the crash.
In a normal accident where the driver simply lost control, we would expect to see the airbag deployed. We'd see short intermittent skid marks, and the computer would give evidence of a change in driving pattern from the driver before the crash. So you can see how important it is to make sure crash sites are properly investigated by people who know what to look for.
How can this possible happen? Don't we have regulations?
You are right in thinking that there are certain tests in place. However, federal crash standards are the minimum standard required. In some cases, these tests can be an absolute joke. For instance the safety testing for side-impact and front-impact airbags is quite good. However, the protocol in place to test for rollovers is appalling. This is because automobile manufacturers in 1980's lobbied for standards that would make their cars look safer than they actually are, and the test that resulted is not indicative of real life events.
The really sad part is that there are so many accidents where we get hired by families and we discover that the police thought the person just died as a result of their own carelessness, when in actuality their car literally killed them. This happens more often than you might think. This raises the question: how many people would just take the police's word for it and never know that this is what happened absent a full investigation? If you think this sounds farfetched, just consider this GM ignition switch problem. They were sued in the past, denied the issue, and settled many times out of court. But they continued to cover the problem up and lied under oath. This has happened on multiple occasions.