Like any other product, a car can develop a flaw known as a "defect" (or in some cases, the vehicle may be designed with one). But, unlike a defective watch or a camera that just won't work right, a vehicle defect can present a real safety risk. Consider, for example, the Toyota Prius's recent unintended acceleration problems, which caused numerous accidents. And as vehicles' electronic systems and other components become more complicated and more innovative, the chances of a vehicle defect will only increase.
This article offers an overview of vehicle defects, and what a lawsuit may look like when a vehicle defect causes car accident injuries and damages.
A vehicle defect may have occurred during manufacture or may be inherent in the design itself. Differentiating between manufacturing and design defects is a crucial step in a successful vehicle defect liability case. Let's take a closer look at both kinds of vehicle defects.
Manufacturing Defects. A manufacturing defect is caused by some error or flaw in the manufacturing process which was unintended by (or a departure from) the vehicle's design. A manufacturing defect affects a limited amount of a vehicle's inventory (usually a small percentage of vehicles rolled out in a model year). A flaw in the welding process of a hybrid car battery or improperly installed floor mats causing unintended acceleration would be considered manufacturing defects.
Design Defects. Unlike manufacturing defects, design defects pervade the entire product line and are intended to be a part of the product. A poorly designed accelerator pedal that sticks or the lack of steel encasing around a hybrid car battery are examples of design defects. Keep in mind that the design of a vehicle must meet government safety standards. A vehicle which fails to meet these standards is prima facie defective.
When vehicle defects occur and result in personal injury or property damage, any resulting lawsuit will be governed by a legal concept called "product liability" which, depending on the facts of the case, can hold different parties liable for the defect -- the vehicle manufacturer, a new car dealer, and (in rare cases) a re-seller of the vehicle.
What You'll Need to Prove. The major hurdle in a product liability case involving a vehicle defect is to identify whether the accident was caused by a manufacturing defect (which departs from the vehicle design and affects a relatively small number of vehicles) or by a design defect (which is planned and pervasive). These are complex questions to resolve, and answering them will likely require ther assistance of expert witnesses (not to mention an experienced vehicle defect attorney).
The good news is that plaintiffs in a vehicle defect lawsuit often have an easier time establishing other aspects of their case. That's because once the defect and resulting injuries are established, under a legal concept known as "strict liability" the vehicle manufacturer or seller often has the burden of showing that the plaintiff doesn't have a case. For example, in a design defect case, the vehicle manufacturer must show that the benefits of the design outweigh the risks of the design.
Any Injured Party Can Sue. In most vehicle defect cases, no contractual relationship (i.e., buyer-seller) needs to exist between the injured person and the defendant (the vehicle manufacturer or car dealer). The injured party does not even need to be the actual buyer or owner of the vehicle. Typically, anyone how has been injured as a result of a vehicle defect -- whether the vehicle owner, a passenger in the owner's vehicle, a driver or passenger in another vehicle, or even a pedestrian -- is a "foreseeable plaintiff" who may bring a vehicle defect lawsuit against the vehicle manufacturer.
Even Misuse of a Vehicle will not Preclude a Lawsuit. In the realm of product liability, both the designer and the manufacturer are required to anticipate reasonably foreseeable uses even if these uses are misuses of the product. It is, for example, reasonably predictable that drivers will exceed the speed limit or stomp on an accelerator. While there may be an issue of comparative negligence (the injured party’s own conduct may in part contribute to the accident), neither the designer nor the manufacturer can escape liability when a defective car causes injuries and/or property damage.