Liability for defects in motor vehicles is associated with the general concept of product liability. Simply put, product liability is a branch of law which determines when manufacturers are at fault for making manufactured products available to consumers.

A products liability claim holds the manufacturer or seller of a product accountable for placing a defective product into the stream of commerce. Any party that is responsible for any part of the manufacture of the product can be held liable, just as any seller of the product may be liable.

Over the course of the production cycle of a vehicle, dozens of parties may be involved. If the resulting vehicle is defective in some way, the following parties may all be held liable for any injuries caused:

  • The assembling manufacturer who may have created the defect at the time of the assembly of the vehicle;
  • The wholesaler that sold the defective product to the dealer;
  • The dealer that sold the vehicle to the consumer; and
  • The manufacturer of the specific piece that was found to be defective.

There are three categories of motor vehicle defects:

  • Design Defects: Design defects are defects in the overall design of the product. Regardless of how well the product is manufactured, if the design is defective, then it is considered to be inherently flawed and could lead to liability issues. For example, in the case of a motor vehicle, an accelerator that gets stuck and does not allow a consumer to control the speed of the vehicle would be an inherent design defect;
  • Manufacturing Defects: A manufacturing defect refers to when the manufacturer puts the product together, they do so in such a way that renders the product unsafe. For example, if an airbag deploys at a dangerous rate of speed causing further injuries, instead of reducing injuries, that could be a manufacturing defect; and
  • Defective Warnings: Some products can still result in a product liability suit if there is an inadequate warning regarding the product. Defective warning products liability cases also include failure to properly instruct an average consumer on how to use the product as safely and effectively as possible.

There are myriad ways in which a motor vehicle can be defective. Some of the most common defects affect:

  • Engines and transmissions;
  • Electrical systems;
  • Brakes;
  • Tires and wheels;
  • Airbags and other safety equipment;
  • Fuel systems; and
  • Body and frame.

What Are Some Examples Of the Most Common Motor Vehicle Product Liability Claims?

Specific motor vehicle parts are more likely to result in a claim for product liability. In 2015, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (“NHTSA”), approximately 500 people died from a car accident caused by tire malfunction.

From 2005 to 2007, the NHTSA discovered that the majority of car accidents (about 94%) are caused by the driver’s negligence. However, 2% of these accidents were due to vehicle malfunction. Those 2% represent some of the most common product failures which contribute to these overall statistics:

  • Tires, either due to loss of traction or inadequate air pressure;
  • Brake failure or issues associated with brake systems;
  • Seat belt defects or failure;
  • Airbag defects or failure; and/or
  • Roof crush, which occurs when vehicles roll over. Roof crush has become increasingly common due to the rise of SUV manufacture, as SUVs are more prone to rollover which is in
  • and of itself a defect.

What Legal Theories May Apply To a Motor Vehicle Defect?

There are three legal theories in which a products liability case may be brought. These include negligence, strict liability, and breach of warranty of fitness, each of which will be briefly discussed below. Each of these theories are generally according to which state’s law is applicable. As there are no federal products liability laws, each state creates its own laws and regulations associated with products liability.

Negligence is the legal theory allowing injured parties to recover for the carelessness of others. A person is considered to be negligent if they were careless given the circumstances of the situation. Businesses can also act negligently by manufacturing faulty or defective goods that cause injury to those who use them.

Strict liability applies to when a product was:

  • Safely designed;
  • Properly manufactured; and
  • Contained an appropriate warning.

The manufacturer or retailer of that product can still be held liable for injuries resulting from use of the product, simply because the product they were associated with caused those injuries. To put it another way, no matter how careful one party was in their part of the creation or sale of the product, they could still be liable for harm caused by the product.

The general theory is that if an injured consumer was tasked with proving who in the chain of production was liable for the product causing the injury, the average consumer would have almost no chance to win their case.

Strict liability cases are especially important for a seller. This is due to the fact that a seller may be deemed liable for the defect, simply because the product was defective regardless of any other action the seller took.

The term warranty refers to a seller’s guarantee that the product they are selling possesses a certain quality, such as a standard of safety. If the product fails to perform as promised, the seller is held liable for breach of warranty. Implied warranties of fitness for a particular purpose refers to when the seller knows of the particular purpose for which a customer is purchasing the product, and is aware that the customer is relying on the seller’s skill or judgment. This would constitute an implied warranty of fitness. A breach of that warranty would be grounds for legal action.

What Should I Do If I Have Been Injured Because Of a Motor Vehicle Defect?

In a personal injury claim, the plaintiff claims that they have sustained an injury due to an act or failure to act by the defendant. Courts may award the plaintiff money damages for personal injury. The injury sustained does not need to manifest itself instantly, and may develop over time.

Auto accidents are considered to be negligence cases. A negligence personal injury claim involves the plaintiff claiming that a defendant injured the plaintiff as a result of breaching a duty of care. If the plaintiff can prove that this breach caused their injury which resulted in damages, the plaintiff has made a successful claim for negligence.

The duty of care that is owed to a plaintiff by the defendant depends on the circumstances. A defendant is legally obligated to exercise the same degree of care that any ordinary person would, under a particular set of facts.

If you have been injured because of a motor vehicle defect, and you wish to take action against a manufacturer, you will need to prove the following:

  1. The vehicle contained a defect, which made the vehicle unreasonably dangerous;
  2. An injury occurred while the vehicle was being used in a reasonable way;
  3. The vehicle itself, specifically, caused the injury; and
  4. The vehicle was in substantially the same condition as when it was sold, meaning it was not altered in any significant way.

If sued, the manufacturer may try to show either that these conditions are not met, or may try to prove contributory negligence on the part of the consumer. This is why it is important to provide ample evidence to support your claim.

Some examples of evidence used in the claim may include:

  • Physical items from the car, often collected from the accident scene;
    Video and/or photographs;
    Witness testimony;
    Police reports; and
    Similar claims from other plaintiffs.

Many motor vehicle product liability lawsuits are filed as class action lawsuits if a large number of people were injured by the same type of vehicle.

Do I Need An Attorney For Motor Vehicle Product Liability Lawsuits?

If you have been injured because of a defective motor vehicle product, you should consult with an experienced and local class action lawyer as soon as possible. Because product liability and personal injury law can vary widely from state to state, working with an area attorney will ensure you receive the most relevant legal advice based on your state.

A personal injury attorney can also help you determine whether there are any class action lawsuits you can join, or if you should file your own. Finally, an attorney will also be able to represent you in court, as needed.