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Products Liability Newsletter

Crashworthiness and Automobile Safety

The principles of product liability provide consumers with some protection against injury from defective products and a means of recovering damages for injuries resulting from the use of defective products. The protection is in general provided by state laws. As a consequence, the nature, extent and procedures connected with this protection vary significantly from state to state. The most expensive product most people buy is a vehicle. Many kinds of defective products can cause serious injury, but vehicle defects have the potential for devastating and lethal consequences; in recognition of this, some states have adopted legal rules and principles that apply to vehicle accident cases.

Injury from Secondary Collisions

Many have pointed out that most vehicle accidents really involve two collisions. The first is the initial impact of the vehicle with another vehicle or object. The second impact has been described as that which occurs when the driver and/or passengers collide with various parts of the vehicle or are ejected and collide with something else, such as the pavement.

The law in many states considers it foreseeable that vehicles may be involved in collisions. Hence, manufacturers not only must design and construct their vehicles to be free of accident-causing defects, but they must also design and construct in a way that will protect the driver and passengers and minimize injuries in a collision or accident, regardless of its cause.

“Crashworthiness” and “Enhanced Injury”

The requirement that manufacturers design and construct vehicles to minimize injuries to the vehicle’s occupants is often called the “crashworthiness” or “enhanced injury” doctrine. It is not accepted in all states, but has been incorporated into such venerable legal authorities as the Restatement of Torts, a compilation of principles of law, periodically updated and often cited and followed by courts. It basically holds that the manufacturer may be held liable for injuries resulting from a failure to protect the vehicle’s occupants during a collision or other accident.

Examples include defective seat belts that tear, resulting in the driver or passengers being thrown from the vehicle, or a defectively designed roof that collapses when the car rolls over. Such defects probably did not cause the accident, but may cause or exacerbate injuries. In some jurisdictions, fault on the part of the victim may eliminate or reduce any award of damages, although it is the cause of the injury and not the accident that is the focus for a crashworthiness analysis.

Types of Defects

Generally, several types of defects may cause injury in an accident. “Manufacturing” defects are problems or flaws in a particular product item, such as a seat belt that tears, and not in the design of the product. “Design” defects, however, are defects inherent in the product. There may also be an additional duty to incorporate known safety devices (such as air bags or roll bars), or at least offer them as an option, in order to minimize danger to the vehicle’s occupants.

Establishing the Existence of Defects

The party claiming that an injury resulted from a defective product may have to present evidence to show that the injury, or its enhancement, was actually caused by the defect. In some states, the claimant or plaintiff may also have to produce a “reasonable alternative design” and show that it was available at the time the vehicle was produced and would have been a safer alternative than the vehicle component that was used. Many have criticized this requirement as placing too difficult and expensive a burden on the victim. In other jurisdictions, the alternative design is just one factor for determining if the design was defective.

Use of Expert Testimony

As a practical matter, most plaintiffs must rely on the testimony of an expert witness to establish that the product was defective or that there was a reasonable alternative design that would have been safer. Experts are generally those with special knowledge, expertise, or experience qualifying them to testify on scientific or technical matters.

Since expert testimony is often vital to the plaintiff’s case, defendant manufacturers often try to have the expert’s testimony excluded. The expert’s testimony must be relevant to the case and the expert must be qualified to testify as an expert. In a landmark 1993 decision, the U.S. Supreme Court set forth a test for determining the admissibility of expert testimony in federal courts. The relevance and reliability of proposed expert testimony is evaluated on factors such as:

  • Whether the expert’s theory or technique can and has been tested, and if control standards were maintained during the testing to promote accuracy.
  • Whether the methodology has been subjected to peer review and published.
  • The statistical potential for errors in the methodology.
  • Whether there is widespread acceptance of the methodology in the relevant scientific community.

Case Law Example

In 1993, Charles Clark was fatally injured when he was ejected from the cab of his truck upon a collision with a police vehicle. He was not wearing his seat belt. Clark’s passengers and the officer were not seriously injured, but Clark was thrown down a grass median strip and subsequently died. A jury found in favor of Clark’s widow, who presented expert testimony that the door latch on the truck was defective, resulting in Clark being ejected from the vehicle. Defendant Chrysler Corporation attacked the expert testimony, but the trial court and Court of Appeals for the 8th Federal District found that the experts and their testimony complied with the Supreme Court test for admissibility.

Furthermore, the Court of Appeals found that Clark’s widow had established that the defective latching mechanism caused or enhanced the injury under the crashworthiness doctrine, although it unclear whether the doctrine applied in that state. The jury found Chrysler was 50% responsible for the injuries and Clark was 50% responsible for not fastening his seatbelt, resulting in a verdict for Clark’s widow of $471,258.26 in compensatory and $3 million in punitive damages (to punish Chrysler and deter similar future conduct). As Clark was found to be 50% at fault, the compensatory award was cut in half, but the punitive damages remained at $3 million.

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