Design Defects in Automotive Products Liability Cases
The basic elements of proof that a plaintiff in a products liability action against the manufacturer or seller of a car or truck has to establish are that the vehicle as sold contained a defect that created an unreasonable risk of death, personal injury, or property damage when the vehicle was used for its intended purpose and that the defect caused an accident or similar incident, such as a vehicle fire, that resulted in the loss for which the plaintiff is seeking to recover damages. Allegations of product defect in automotive products liability cases include inadequacies in vehicle design, errors in the manufacture of vehicle parts and their assembly into a completed car or truck, and failure to warn users of a vehicle about dangers inherent in its use.
Claims of design defect in a motor vehicle can involve allegations about many of the vehicle’s parts or assemblies, singly or in combination. A few past examples include allegations that the design of a fuel tank holding strap and its connection to the fuel tank permitted the fuel tank to be pierced in a rear-end collision, that a rear seat belt design created an unreasonable risk of abdominal injury in an accident, and that the location of the fuel tank on a pickup truck failed to provide sufficient protection against the risk of fire in a side collision. A subset of the overall area of design defect involves crashworthiness claims, in which it is alleged that because manufacturers know that cars and trucks will be involved in collisions in the ordinary course of their operation, failure to design a vehicle so as to provide a reasonable degree of protection against injury in the event of an accident is itself a design defect that creates liability on the part of the manufacturer. Some courts require the plaintiff in a design defect case to introduce evidence of a feasible alternative design that could have been employed in the place of the allegedly defective design element in the vehicle, while other courts allow a jury to consider design defect claims without the necessity for establishing the existence of such an alternative design.
Products liability law in the United States, including automotive products liability law, has evolved for over half a century out of developments in the separate legal systems of each of the states, rather than as a single unified body of federal law. (The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, NHTSA for short, has enacted a body of Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards, or FMVSS, with which every new motor vehicle must comply, and these standards may play some part in an automotive products liability case.) While developments in products liability law in the different states contain many similarities, the legal principles governing claims of design defect in automotive products liability cases will vary from state to state.