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Automotive Product Liability

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Nearly 6 million motor vehicle accidents occur on roadways in the United States every year, claiming the lives of an estimated 42,000 people and injuring another 2.75 million.*

Many of the accidents accounted for in these statistics are caused by automobile defects or automotive product defects, which are more common than one might think. Since 1966, NHTSA has required manufacturers to recall more than 390 million motor vehicles, 46 million tires and 66 million motor vehicle components to correct safety defects.

If you believe a motor vehicle defect (i.e., motorcycle, SUV or car defect) or an automotive defective product (e.g., defective seatbelt, defective airbag, defective door latch or defective tire) caused or aggravated your accident, personal injury attorneys can help you determine if you are eligible for compensation.

Automotive Product Liability Law

Strict products liability law applies to any accident caused or worsened by a product defect. An automotive product defect can stem from a variety of problems, including errors made during the manufacturing process, design flaws, or insufficient warnings or directions.

Insurance companies and juries evaluate product defects according to strict products liability laws. To receive compensation for harm caused by a defective product, a victim must provide evidence that the defect caused harm and was "unreasonably dangerous." When it comes to lawsuits for defective products, negligence does not need to be proved for a victim to receive compensation.



Victims filing claims under automotive product liability law may be able to receive compensatory and/or punitive damages. To reimburse victims for their losses, juries frequently award compensation based on a preset formula, taking into consideration the extent of the injuries. Compensation may cover any financial losses, including medical expenses, lost income and other expenses. In cases where the company is guilty of extreme wrongdoing, juries or insurance companies may also award the victim punitive damages, which can be substantial. Punitive damages are awarded to victims to discourage the liable party and others from making the same mistakes in the future.

Establishing an Automotive Product Design Defect

To establish that an automotive product design is defective, the design must be proven to be "unreasonably dangerous." This means:

  • Showing that a design is significantly more dangerous than a vehicle user would expect it to be and/or
  • Showing that a design's risks clearly outweigh its benefits. One way to do this is to show that another safer design works just as effectively with less potential for doing harm.

An experienced personal injury attorney will be aware of the requirements for proving that a product is defective and can help you determine if your situation makes you eligible for compensation.

Examples of Defective Automotive Products

A defective automotive product is any automotive component that "poses a risk to motor vehicle safety," according to the NHTSA. Defective automotive products can include:

Defective tires. Tires that suddenly deflate may be defective. For example, a tire that deflates due to tread separation is defective. Tires that are older than six years old when they are first put into use can be found to be defective.

Defective airbags. An airbag can malfunction in several ways. For example, an airbag that deploys too aggressively in a low-speed crash is defective. Airbags that deploy too late or not at all in a moderate to high-speed crash or deploy unexpectedly when an accident is not occurring are defective.

Defective Seat belts. Seat belts that fail to safely and effectively restrain a vehicle occupant during an accident are defective. For example, a seat belt buckle that comes unfastened during a crash is defective. Seat belt webbing that breaks during a crash also constitutes a seat belt defect.

Defective Door latches. Door latches can be found to be defective in a variety of ways. For example, a door latch that fails to completely close when the door is shut is defective. Door latches that do not meet Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards are also defective.

If you suspect that a defective automotive product contributed to your injuries (broken bones, amputation, traumatic brain injury, paralysis, etc.) or the wrongful death of a loved one, a personal injury attorney can help you determine whether you are eligible for compensation.

Case in Point: Grimshaw v. Ford Motor Company

A well-known case, Grimshaw v. Ford Motor Company, illustrates an automotive design defect. On May 28, 1972, Mrs. Lilly Gray's six-month-old Ford Pinto hatchback unexpectedly stalled in the middle lane of a California freeway. As the Pinto rolled to a stop, it was rear-ended by a Ford Galaxie traveling at a relatively low speed (28-37 mph). On impact, the Pinto instantly burst into flames, severely burning both Mrs. Gray and her 13-year-old son, Richard Grimshaw. Afterward, Mrs. Gray died of her injuries, and Richard was left terribly scarred.

An investigation determined that fuel systems in Ford Pintos contained serious defects. First, a poorly designed carburetor caused Pintos to stall without warning. Second, the location of the fuel tank behind the Pinto's rear axle made it vulnerable to puncture by protruding differential housing bolts in a low-speed, rear-end crash and, therefore, to catching fire.

These defects made the Ford Pinto "unreasonably dangerous." An ordinary driver does not expect a new car to unexpectedly stall on a busy freeway or to burst into flames in a low-speed, rear-end collision.

In addition, these defects caused the risks associated with the design of the Ford Pinto's fuel system to outweigh its benefits. Ford should have used a safer design, which placed the fuel tank above instead of behind the rear axle. Such a design was already in use in small European and Japanese cars.

It is no wonder that the case ended with the jury awarding Grimshaw $2,841,000 in compensatory damages and $125,000,000 in punitive damages. In addition, the Grays received $659,680 in compensatory damages. Later compensatory damages for Grimshaw were reduced to $2,516,000, and compensatory damages for the Grays were reduced to $559,680.

When You Need a Products Liability Attorney

Victims who experience delayed or denied claims or receive incomplete payment often require the assistance of a products liability lawyer. A qualified products liability attorney can help victims receive the full compensation they deserve. If you or someone you know have been the injured as a result of a defective automotive product, contact a personal injury attorney to learn about your legal right to compensation.

* National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA)