Effect of Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards on Automotive Products Liability Cases
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, commonly known as NHTSA, an agency of the United States Department of Transportation, enacted an initial set of Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards, or FMVSS, in the late 1960s. NHTSA has amended and updated the FMVSS, and has added new standards to the original group of FMVSS, since that time. Every new motor vehicle sold in the United States is required to comply with all of the FMVSS that are applicable to that type of vehicle. (Due to differences in the configurations of passenger cars and trucks, certain of the FMVSS are limited in their application to one type of vehicle or the other.) In an automotive products liability case, a legal action in which a plaintiff seeks to recover damages from the manufacturer or seller of a motor vehicle for death, personal injury, or property damage caused by an alleged defect in the design or manufacture of the vehicle or by the failure to warn of a danger inherent in its use and operation, the FMVSS sometimes play a role in determining the outcome of the dispute between the parties.
The FMVSS may become involved in automotive products liability cases in a number of ways. A vehicle’s noncompliance with an applicable standard, which would make it subject to a voluntary or NHTSA-ordered recall campaign to remedy the noncompliance, can serve as evidence of a product defect for litigation purposes. Manufacturers, by contrast, will often introduce evidence of compliance with one or more of the FMVSS related to the plaintiff’s claimed vehicle defect in order to show the absence of such a defect in a car or truck. (It should be noted that compliance with the FMVSS, while useful as evidence of the non-defective status of a vehicle, does not constitute an absolute defense for a manufacturer against a claim dealing with a particular vehicle part or system.) Manufacturers will also argue that the comprehensive nature of certain of the FMVSS, in particular those covering the requirements for innovative safety equipment such as airbags, should bar, under a doctrine known as federal preemption, claims alleging that the failure to equip a vehicle with a particular safety device at the time of its manufacture rendered the vehicle defective.
The law of products liability in the United States, including automotive products liability law, has evolved over more than half a century out of developments in the separate legal systems of the individual states rather than from a single unified body of federal law. While the FMVSS can have an impact on automotive products liability cases that can be quite substantial, such as in a situation that brings into play a claim of federal preemption, the legal standards governing automotive products liability cases will vary from state to state.