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An Overview of Rollover Accidents

Rollover accidents are some of the most catastrophic accidents drivers and passengers can be involved in, yet the industry has largely failed to make a good faith effort to build adequate rollover protection into their products. Hence, auto manufacturers are constantly being called upon and remanded to make vehicles to better withstand rollovers.

But what exactly is "safe enough?" And if a vehicle isn't safe enough, who's responsible? On this page, we'll cover those topics and explain rollover accident cases in full detail, including:

  • Why rollover accidents are so dangerous
  • What rights you have if you or a loved one have been seriously injured in an rollove

As with most complex subject matters, it's usually best to start off with a summary:
Although all vehicles are required to be designed to withstand at least some amount of force exerted on their roof, many manufacturers are doing the bare minimum when they can easily and inexpensively do much more to protect customers. Sure, rollover tests are part of standard crash tests, but the problem is that despite how well cars may do in these softball tests, most cars don't perform very well in a real-life rollover accident. In such an event, the roof of the vehicle ends up caving in - badly injuring or killing the people inside the vehicle. This is true for certain sedans, vans, and trucks, but especially SUVs. And as we all know, when someone manufactures and sells you a bad product, you get to hold them liable for any injuries you sustain as a result. In the same vein, auto manufacturers can be held liable for their design flaws as well.

Rollover Basics

So what is a "rollover" accident? A rollover case? Any type of accident that results in the vehicle rolling on top of its roof or even onto its side can be classified as a rollover accident. It doesn't matter what started the accident (e.g., speeding, a wreck with another car, slippery roads, mechanical flaw with the car, etc), what matters is how the car dealt with the rollover. Think about it like this: if you get rear-ended at 40 mph and your car explodes, you'd likely say that the car did not perform as you would have expected it to. How the rear-end accident occurred is irrelevant. The issue is that the rear crash structure failed. After all, we don't want our car's airbags, bumper, or seat belts to pass judgment on us before they decide to work, we just want them to work. Likewise, there's an expectation from consumers that their car should be able to withstand rollovers at least as well as other comparable cars on the market. When a manufacturer offers a car for sale that suffers from inadequate rollover protection, that creates potential liabilities for the carmaker.

Specifically speaking, a rollover case (or lawsuit) is based on a theory of products liability. A products liability case claims that a dangerous condition inherent in the product sold or a defect in its design caused the consumer to sustain an injury. For our purposes, that means that a rollover lawsuit is claiming that the auto manufacturer is responsible for their vehicle's rollover because some part of the car was inferior or defective - namely, the roof and its structure. Often times, the overall safety of a car in an accident scenario is referred to "crashworthiness."

Additional reading:

Some Statistics

In 2002, the National Highway and Traffic Safety Administration found that 9,873 people died in rollover accidents, while in 2004, the number climbed to 10,553. In 2010, the number of fatalities was over 7,600. However, of all the fatal passenger vehicle fatalities in 2010, 35% were from rollover accidents. Of all the traffic accidents in the U.S. in 2010, rollovers and otherwise, an estimated 191,100 involved rollovers.

What does that tell us? Simply put, it says that rollover accidents unfortunately account for a large portions of wrecks.

Types of Rollover Accidents

As we stated above, a rollover accident is any type of wreck or accident that results in the vehicle's tires leaving the road and overturning. Often times, the vehicle will roll over multiple times, but sometimes a rollover accident can just mean a vehicle turning onto its side.

There are some factors that commonly cause rollover accidents:

  • Rollover Accidents Caused by Mechanical Failures
  • Rollover Accidents Caused by Design Flaws

Vehicles commonly susceptible to roof crush:

  • SUVs
  • 15-Passenger Vans
  • 18-Wheelers & Semi-Trucks
  • Convertibles

Are Rollover Cases Important?

In a word, yes. The injuries sustained in a rollover accident usually range from serious to fatal. Anytime someone is flung about the cabin of a vehicle during a rollover, even if they're wearing a seatbelt, some injuries are going to occur. The problem that many vehicles have is that the roof of the car ends up compressing and caving in - drastically decreasing the chances of surviving a rollover accident. But it's not just important for the injured victim, it's also important for society as a whole. By holding manufacturers accountable for improperly designed vehicles, you're dis-incentivizing the creation of future unsafe vehicles.

But, they're also important because they're valuable to the individual who was hurt. So, what do we mean by "valuable" when talking about rollover accidents? In general, the "value" of a lawsuit is determined by what kind of injuries (even fatal ones) were incurred and how much it costs to make that person whole again. But, it's not just medical bills and doctor's visits, because there are other kinds of injuries and losses that you can't tally up on a calculator. For example, the pain and grief from losing a spouse in an accident is considered a type of injury that you can be compensated for in a lawsuit. The articles below talk about how to figure out whether your case has value and how to maximize it.

  • Compensation available to rollover accident victims

Injuries in a Rollover Accident

Many of the normal car accident injuries can also be sustained in a rollover. Examples would be broken arms or dislocated bones, even concussions. But because rollover accidents are so traumatic and the vehicle's occupants are usually tossed about, most of the injuries are much more severe.

  • Paralysis
  • Paraplegia
  • Quadriplegia
  • Brain injuries

Why Don't They Just Make Safer Cars?

With such major injuries and so many fatalities in rollover accidents, this is a hot-button topic in the safety industry, but the bottom line is that auto manufacturers are only interested in doing the bare minimum. When you think about a car's crashworthiness, you need to keep these four things in mind:

  1. The "survival cell" of the vehicle needs to retain its shape entirely.
  2. 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
  3. Direct impact energy away from occupants.
  4. Protect the fuel cell to avoid fires.

For the purpose of rollover accidents, #1 is where we'll spend most of our time in our discussion of whether or not it's possible for auto manufacturers to make cars that are safer in rollover situations. We won't get into all the specifics here, but let's talk about the basic structure of a car and what kind of weight/trauma it should have to endure.

Designing the Roof of a Car

There are lots of parts that go into making a car, but the "bare bones" are the frame and/or chassis. A car's frame and chassis are made out of steel and other metals. The colorful plastic and metal pieces that make up the outside of the car aren't usually structural, meaning that they don't support any weight or loads. Think of it like bricks on the outside of a house: the bricks don't support the weight of the house, the foundation and framing underneath does.

In the same way, the frame underneath the car's panels are supposed to withstand survivable accident forces. Now, you'd think that the roof of any given vehicle ought to be able to support at least the weight of the vehicle, right? Auto manufacturers' advertising certainly seems to suggest that should be the case, but according to their own internal testing, they know their vehicles can't withstand these accident forces.

Crash Tests Gone Wrong

Let's look at some examples from the past. In the late 1960's and into the early 1970's, auto manufacturers like Ford and GMC were testing the durability and strength of the roofs of their cars. Unfortunately, the test results showed the auto manufacturers exactly what they didn't want to see: their roofs need to be better-reinforced and just stronger all around. So what did they do? Auto manufacturers started to change and vary the crash test and not their cars. Eventually, they got to the point where their cars were passing the crash standard tests, but they weren't testing for the right kind of impacts.

Cars were being sold to customers (and are still being sold!) around the nation that flat-out did not hold up well in a rollover accident. However, the auto manufacturers were able to say with a straight face, " We tested the roofs with different weights and found that these cars passed the test." The problem was that the tests were asking the wrong questions and didn't factor in the type of forces a car sustains in an actual rollover situation - they were merely pressing weights against the cars and testing to see if the metal buckled and flexed.

Adding more steel to the frame of a vehicle wouldn't have added a lot of cost to the production process. However, the manufacturers were (and still are) concerned with their bottom line and saving money. The problem is obvious, isn't it? People have a right to buy safe vehicles and when the manufacturer advertises their vehicles as being crashworthy, they need to be telling the truth.

Are Cars Getting Any Better?

That's a tricky question. Some auto manufacturers, like Volvo, take great pride in their work and do testing apart from the government's minimum requirements. Those vehicles are certainly going to hold up a lot better in a rollover situation. For many of the other cars, trucks, and SUV's out there, that's not the case and the manufacturers still use less-than-safe designs for their roofs - even when better designs exist at minimal extra cost.

Can I Sue The Auto Manufacturer?

In this section, we'll cover what a successful rollover accident lawsuit looks like. In simple terms, auto manufacturers owe their customers a duty to give them safe cars. They also owe them a duty to warn them if their vehicles are dangerous. That not only includes using safe designs and quality products, it also includes using the best, safest, and most efficient designs and products available to them. As we pointed out above, one of the major problem with cars performing so poorly in real-life rollover situations was that a financially viable solution was available to the auto manufacturers and they simply ignored it.

Earlier, we mentioned that rollover accident cases are based on a theory of products liability. Again, that means that you're holding the manufacturer of the vehicle responsible for designing an unsafe product that resulted in injury or death. But, you not only have to prove that the vehicle's design was unsafe, you also need to be able to prove that the manufacturer could have conceivably made a safer vehicle and the accident would have been thus avoided.

Elsewhere on our site, we've devoted some space to describing products liability law. That page will explain that area of the law at length, so we'll just cover the basics here. Products liability law is a hybrid mixture of injury law and contract law that allows manufacturers and sellers of products to be held liable for their behavior. A manufacturer is not allowed to sell a dangerous product; they must use the best design, science, and technology that's financially available to them; they must adequately describe and display warnings; and they must honor safety warranties.

It's obviously not feasible or just to sue a manufacturer every time someone is hurt with one of their products, but lawmakers needed to hold companies and manufacturers to some standard of accountability. So in instances where very serious injuries are created by an equally serious disregard for the safety of vehicle occupants by the vehicle's manufacturer, a lawsuit is feasible. What makes the case not just feasible but successful is based on many more factors, so let's take a look at the necessary elements in a successful rollover accident case.

Evidence

You can't prove anything without evidence, so this is going to be a crucial part of your lawsuit. You'll need evidence that the auto manufacturer's design of your vehicle was unsafe, plus evidence that shows they ignored a safer, more effective design. That makes them liable, in legal terms. As far as the litigation process goes, this is going to be one of the most time-intensive, tedious steps in your case. These links will show what you need to prove your case:

  • You need to investigate the accident
  • Police reports provide the basic data needed to get started in the investigation
  • Accident recreation is a test wherein a car like yours is wrecked to duplicate the circumstances surrounding your wreck and take measurements of forces your vehicle likely sustained
  • An accident reconstructionist can examine the accident scene and create an animation model that depicts what occurred in your wreck; a helpful tool for explaining your wreck to a jury
  • Liability expert witnesses are used to review the evidence and render an expert opinion for the purpose of informing the jury about the finer points of the accident

Proving Damages

If you've lost a loved one in a rollover accident, you may have a wrongful death claim of your own to bring, or even a survival claim on their behalf. As we described earlier on this page, your damages are your injuries and losses in an accident. These can be obvious and physical injuries or they can be abstract and emotional injuries.

Tying it All Together With a Court Case

Perhaps one of the most important things you must consider regarding any rollover case is that you will face significant opposition. Simply put, automakers have tremendous resources at their disposal, including access to lawyers who spend all day every day fighting claims like yours. Further, there are inherent limiting factors on these cases, including a statute of limitations, damages caps for punitive damages, and other factors that should be taken into consideration as your attorney chooses the most appropriate strategy for winning your case.

Despite those limiting factors, a good attorney and the right evidence can always make for a winning combination. Here are some articles that provide additional detail about the various phases these cases will go through:

Getting the Right Attorney

If we've done our job well, then you should have an idea of why rollover accidents are so very serious. Ultimately, they can reflect significant design flaws and also point to the manufacturer of the vehicle as being responsible.

A lot of research goes into fighting an auto manufacturer in court, and you have to be prepared to counter their engineers and research with hard evidence and research of your own. At the end of the day, you're looking to prove that they didn't take all the right precautions and knew that their vehicle wouldn't hold up very well in a rollover accident.

We've put a lot of thought into explaining this area of the law, and hopefully you're walking away with a better understanding of how products liability law works. If you have any questions or need to discuss a case that you may have, we're always glad to make our services available to those who need help. The way we see it, not enough people know about how unsafe their cars can be and it's just not right to let auto manufacturers get away with designing and selling inferior products.