Motor Vehicle Defects
A driver can do everything right on the road and still end up in an accident, when the vehicle itself turns out to have a defect. What driver would suspect, for example that a new car would suddenly shut off, depriving the driver of the power steering while driving at high speed? Or that the vehicle would suddenly accelerate for no apparent reason while being driven on a highway? And who would expect to suddenly be broadsided by one of these malfunctioning vehicles?
We are all at the mercy of vehicle manufacturers. Their products are designed to be put to dangerous uses: driving at high speed in close proximity to other vehicles, also being driven at high speed. There are many different kinds of defects that may, by their nature, result in, or exacerbate, injuries to motorists:
- Defects that cause an initial accident, such as a design that encourages rollovers, and the acceleration and turn-off problems described above
- Defects that deprive occupants of the protection of safety devices, which are often among the selling points used by manufacturers to induce people to purchase the vehicle, such as seatbelts and airbags
- Defects that increase the damage once an accident occurs, for example fuel systems that encourage post-accident fires
Products Liability Theory Helps Consumers
In essence, a vehicle is always potentially dangerous, even when the vehicle is being used as it was intended; it is almost impossible for the ordinary person to discover the defect until there has been an accident. That situation is what gave rise to the legal theory of “products liability.”
In the simplest terms, the law recognizes that consumers are entitled to expect that a product will safely perform its intended functions. If it does not, it is defective and all sellers of it—the manufacturer, retailer, and any steps in between—are legally liable for the damages the defect caused. In many cases, this “strict liability” approach—meaning you don’t have to show specific acts of negligence, only that the product was defective—makes it easier for injured consumers to recover for their injuries.
In the context of motor vehicle defects, strict liability claims can be brought against the vehicle manufacturer, the defective part manufacturer if that’s a different entity, the dealership, and any entity that passed the vehicle down the path from the manufacturer and to the retailer.
While airbags have been shown to decrease injuries overall, not all airbag systems do that job equally well. If the unit’s sensor is defective or set to deploy at the wrong pressure, the airbag may deploy when there’s no need for it, frequently causing the driver to lose control of the vehicle. Alternatively, it may not deploy when there is a need for it, leaving the occupant to experience the injuries the device was intended to prevent.
Airbags are designed to inflate with some force, but if too much force is used, the bag inflation itself can injure the occupant. If the airbag is aimed incorrectly, it may injure the occupant. The same when the airbag is not tethered in place properly and strikes the occupant in a way not intended.
If the airbag fails to deploy, the occupants obviously become susceptible to the very injuries that airbags are meant to prevent, when the occupant is thrust face first into the windshield or dashboard in the course of a crash.
A deploying airbag may cause injuries, especially to occupants who are shorter than average (because the bag will hit them higher up than was intended), or who were in odd positions at the time the bag deployed.
Airbag-caused injuries to the face are common and include potentially serious damage to the occupant’s eyes and eye sockets. Other injuries known to be caused by airbags include:
- Abrasions and contusions
- Internal organ damage in the neck/throat/chest
- Irritation of the throat, skin or other tissue
Because they have been shown to save lives and prevent or minimize injuries, use of seatbelts is now mandatory in more and more states. Properly functioning seatbelts:
- Prevent the wearer’s momentum from causing the wearer to smash into the windshield or dashboard (the so-called “second collision” in an accident)
- Prevent the wearer from being ejected during violent crashes like rollovers
However, proper seatbelt function depends on overall design and the proper function of each part of the system: the belts themselves; the tightening mechanism; the latching mechanism; the release mechanism; and the anchoring or mounting structures that keep the belt system tethered to the vehicle’s interior.
Typical defects include:
- Failure to lock properly
- Unintended release
- Inadequate anchors that allow the entire mechanism to pull free of the vehicle
- Belts too loose or too weak
- Belt location that allows restraint to cause injuries
As with airbags, if the seatbelt defect keeps the belt from restraining the wearer’s forward momentum during a crash, the wearer becomes susceptible to the very injuries that seatbelts are intended to prevent, especially the wearer being thrust face first into the windshield or dashboard. But even when seatbelts restrain as intended, the design and location of the restrain can itself cause injuries to the wearer.
Seatbelts, by design, tend to cross the body from shoulder to waist, and around the stomach region. The forward momentum of the wearer during an accident presses the belt forcefully into those areas. Accordingly, most injuries inflicted by seatbelts are to those areas. Many of the injuries are to the internal organs there, with the neck being particularly vulnerable if the belt presses directly into it.
In rollover accidents, the forces imposed on the vehicle occupants are not linear as in head-ons and rear-enders; because the vehicle is literally rotating, occupants are thrown around the interior in many different directions until the vehicle comes to rest. Unless the occupants are securely restrained, they are likely to collide with multiple internal structures, or even be ejected from the vehicle.
Vehicle defects that can cause rollovers fall into one of two categories:
- Direct causes, like defective designs that produce dangerously high centers of gravity
- Indirect causes, like defective steering that makes the vehicle more prone to skids and slides, which then make the vehicle more likely to strike an object which “trips” the vehicle over
Pick-up trucks and sports utility vehicles (SUVs) are particularly susceptible to rollovers because of their design: they are tall vehicles with relatively narrow wheel bases (distance between the wheels on opposite sides of the vehicle). That gives them a high center of gravity. In addition, both types of vehicles tend to be used on uneven dirt roads and rural roads where rollovers are most likely to occur.
Rollovers are also more likely than other kinds of vehicle accidents to cause deaths and catastrophic injuries. According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), in 2004 rollover accidents caused:
- 10,553 deaths
- 47,284 incapacitating injuries
- 184,408 less severe injuries
The same report showed that rollover accidents are more likely to result in death than other types of motor vehicle accidents. Some 2.7 percent of people in a rollover accident died, compared to only .2 percent of people in other kinds of accidents.
Vehicle Defect Claims are Complicated; Get Experienced Help
There’s nothing simple about a motor vehicle defect case. Unlike a slip and fall or auto accident claim, product liability claims against car manufacturers require vast amounts of time, money, energy and travel. Establishing that there was a defect often requires detailed engineering analysis, reconstruction of the accident, and consultation with professionals in the engineering and manufacturing fields. Combine that with the fact that most potential defendants are large businesses with lots of incentive to avoid liability, and it’s obvious that experience matters when it comes to choosing a lawyer to handle your case.
At the Drake law firm in Birmingham, we have been handling injury cases for a quarter of a century. Our track record of success speaks for itself: many million dollar verdicts and a success rate approaching 99 percent. We know how to handle all the aspects of a defect claim and give every client personal attention. Call today for a free case consultation.