Auto Products Liability.

A product liability case arises when a product’s design, manufacture, or warning, is defective and caused harm. Vehicle defects can be as varied as the cars found on American roads, and a closer look into the facts of each case is always necessary.

When there is a car crash and someone is severely injured or killed, there is the possibility of a vehicle defect. This is a particular type of auto product liability case and arises when a vehicle fails to provide reasonable crash protection, known as a crashworthiness case. Since the 1960’s, the courts have recognized the duty of vehicle manufacturers to provide reasonable crash protection.

Car crashes and vehicle defects

Crashworthiness cases involve the allegation that a vehicle manufacturer did not take precautions to reduce the injuries resulting from a foreseeable crash. The vehicle is defective if it is designed or manufactured in such a way that the injuries the driver or passengers sustained in a crash are greater than the injuries normally expected in that type of crash.

Some of the more common vehicle defects involve airbags, child seats, fuel systems, glass claims, occupant ejections, rollovers, roof crush, seat back failures, seatbelt defects, and tire failures.

Self-driving cars and crash avoidance systems

A second type of auto product liability case relates to Crash Avoidance Systems (CAS) or Crash Avoidance Technology (CAT) which are now widely implemented in passenger vehicles and tractor trailers.

Crash Avoidance Technologies include:

  • Forward Collision Warning
  • Automatic Emergency Braking
  • Lane Departure Warning
  • Lane Keeping Assist
  • Blind Spot Detection
  • Side View Assist
  • Pedestrian Detection Systems
  • Rear Back-Up Cameras and Detection

It is important to note, these safety systems can and should be available on both passenger vehicles and heavy trucks.

A developing area

This is a somewhat new area of the law and litigation. First of all, it is important to consider litigation against the vehicle manufacturer for choosing not to equip its vehicles with Crash Avoidance Technologies when the technology has been available for years. The second consideration is suing if the technology has failed,  malfunctioned, or did not perform properly, often due to software errors.

Jaime Jackson Law is experienced in this area of the law and at the forefront of vehicle technology where car crashes and vehicle defects are concerned.

What does crashworthiness mean?

Crashworthiness cases involve the allegation that a vehicle manufacturer did not take precautions to reduce the injuries resulting from a foreseeable crash. The vehicle is defective if it is designed or manufactured in such a way that the injuries the driver or passengers sustained in a crash are greater than the injuries normally expected in that type of crash.

How should my car protect me in a crash?

Crashworthiness requires protection from the forces created in an impact which would potentially cause injury. Safe designs distribute the forces in a crash over time and distance, and direct forces away from the more vulnerable parts of the body, such as the brain and spine. There are well-established processes that vehicle manufacturers should be designing into their cars to ensure crashworthiness. Vehicle defects commonly result from a decision to maximize profits and sacrifice a design that would accomplish occupant protection.

How can vehicle manufacturers protect us in crashes?

Intrusion should be minimized

The space in which the driver and passengers sit is commonly referred to as the occupant survival space. Essentially, the structure of the vehicle should be kept outside of the inside of the vehicle. Vehicles are designed to have crush or crumple zones at the front and rear to absorb the force of any impact, but substantial crush should end where the occupant space starts. Roofs should withstand collapse in highway speed rollovers.

Effective restraint system

Seatbelts should fit properly and engage promptly to restrain occupants, especially in a rollover, where good restraint is essential to keep the occupant from being thrown into the roof or being ejected out of a window.

Prevention of ejection

When a person is thrown out of a vehicle (ejected), there is a much higher probability of being injured or killed. Seatbelts help prevent ejection and doors should stay latched. The type of glass used in a vehicle as well as  side (curtain) airbags also help prevent complete or partial ejection.

Friendly interiors

Occupants of a car can come into contact with the vehicle’s interior even if they are wearing seatbelts. Hard surfaces should be padded, and steering columns should collapse to absorb the forces of an impact.

Fuel System Integrity

Occupants in a car should not survive a crash to thereafter die in a fire which might follow. If a fuel system has been well designed, including the location of the fuel tank, routing of the fuel line, and secure connections most crashes should not result in a fire.

What are some common auto products defects?

The list below highlights some of the common defects causing injury which may help identify whether the vehicle is defective.

Post-Collision, Fuel-Fed Fires

Vehicle manufacturers have a duty to design vehicles that will not create a fire hazard in crashes which would otherwise be considered survivable. Common fuel system defects that can cause fuel leaks resulting in fires after a crash include:

  • Punctured and leaking fuel tanks
  • Compromised fuel lines. The location and the composition of the fuels line is critical to the overall integrity of a vehicle’s fuel system
  • Fuel pumps that do not shut off in a crash in a  fuel-injected engine
  • Faulty check valves or anti-siphoning devices to prevent the siphoning of fuel from a tank after a crash, therefore providing a  fuel source for a vehicle fire.
Air Bags

Before a passenger hits an air bag in a crash, it should be fully inflated. Air bags can inflate at speeds up to 200 mph and cause serious injury by hitting occupants before full inflation. In addition, low-speed impacts can occur where an air bag may deploy when unneeded. The safest air bags have higher deployment thresholds, may deploy less aggressively, and include tethers and improved sensors.


Government statistics show that pick-ups and sport utility vehicles (SUVs) have a rollover rate that is 2 to 3 times higher than the average passenger car. 80% of all deaths in single vehicle crashes of SUVs involve rollovers. Electronic stability control (ESC) technology has been well developed for many years now, however, many cars today still do not have ESC.

Rollover crashworthiness

Rollovers are often relatively non-severe events because the kinetic energy of the crash is spread over a longer period of time. People in a crashworthy vehicle should not be severely injured in a rollover, but if they are, here are some things to consider:

  • Roof crush
  • Seatbelt slack
  • Seatbelt unlatching
  • Lack of ejection protection
Seat Belts

Seatbelts are the single most important safety device in a vehicle when they work as they ought to. If a seatbelt fails to work as it is designed to, it can cause serious injury and even death. If an occupant is  wearing their seatbelt but is killed or severely injured in a car crash, ask why.

Seatbelts can be defective

Millions of vehicles on the road have defective seatbelt systems that do not offer adequate protection in otherwise survivable crashes. for years, vehicle manufacturers have know about these defects. They include poor seat belt geometry, unlatching and false latching, torn or ripped webbing, and retractor failure. Lap-only belt designs and door-mounted automatic seatbelt systems are renowned for being defective and leading to fatal or catastrophic injuries, including head and spinal cord and other internal injuries. Though the benefits of a lap and shoulder belt have been known for decades, shoulder belts were not included in the rear seats of most U.S. cars until the late 1980’s.

Door-mounted and other automatic belt systems are known to cause occupant ejection when the door opens during a crash, and severe spinal cord injuries.

Tire failure

The recent Firestone incident has shone a spotlight on tire failures, separations, and blow-outs, which are foreseeable events that occur on a daily basis. What is less well known is that often a tire will fail to do its job due to a manufacturing or design defect long before the tread on the tire has worn out. The most common form of failure is tread separation and some tire designs are more prone to tread separation than others.

Seats/seat backs

Thousands of preventable injuries occur each year in rear-impact collisions due to the defective designs of seats and their components. Seats are an occupant restraint and should prevent an occupant from moving forward or backwards in a head-on or rear impact crash. In addition, seats should prevent the occupant from hitting the inside of the vehicle or being ejected. Seats and their components have been known to break during a collision, causing catastrophic injury such as paralysis.

Child safety seats and booster seats

Many child safety seats are not up to standard to protect children in crashes. Even though they were restrained in child safety seats or booster seats, every year, hundreds of children suffer serious and often fatal injuries in car crashes. Many of these injuries and deaths could have been prevented if the product had been properly designed, manufactured, and installed.

What should I look for if I think I have an auto products liability case?

All catastrophic injury car crash cases should be examined for potential crashworthiness issues, however, some circumstances highlight the need for special investigation.

Minor and severe injuries in the same crash

When people involved in the same crash suffer varying types of injury, it is important to work out why. For example, was there a defect with one of the seat belts? If there was a rollover, did part of the roof fail? Did one or more of the seat backs collapse? The answers these types of questions may (or may not) point to a product defect.

Was a seat belted occupant severely hurt where crash testing has proven that there should not have been severe injury.

Comparing what happened to an occupant with what happened to a crash test dummy in a similar impact may demonstrate that there is a defect somewhere.

Was someone hurt even by doing the right things?

Some of the questions to ask which may point to whether a vehicle defect contributed to an injury are: whether the occupant was wearing their seat belt but hurt anyway; whether the driver steered to avoid an obstacle and rolled over.

Did something break or not work as it should?

Common questions when airbags are deployed are: whether the airbag failed to go off in a serious impact, or went off in a minor impact but caused greater injury. Other questions to explore relate to seat belt parts, roof crushes, the position of the seat back after impact, was there tire failure? In many cases which turn out to be auto products cases (or, crashworthiness cases), there is no visually obvious failure.

Did a person end up some place they should not have been?

For example, was an occupant wearing a seat belt ejected from the vehicle? Did the person wearing a seat belt come into contact with an interior part of the car that should have been out of reach if the seat belt properly worked?  Did someone in the front seat end up in the back seat, which may point to the seat back failing?

What evidence needs to be preserved?

It is critical to preserve all key evidence and, as far as possible, the vehicle involved in the crash needs to be maintained in its immediate post-crash condition. Evidence from the scene, such as tire marks or damage to the road itself must be documented while they are fresh. In addition, sworn statements should be taken from any witnesses.

What information can my car's “black box” record?

Almost all newer vehicles come with some kind of crash data recorder.  They are often referred to as “black boxes” because of the black box recorders on airplanes. The sensor system of the black box links to the airbag module in a car and monitors the status of the vehicle immediately before and during a crash. The black box can record detailed information such as whether seat belts were being worn, braking speed, the timing of  when airbags were deployed, and even engine RPMs. Each car involved in the crash may have a black box recorder.

Are there government safety standards to protect us?

The Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards (“FMVSS”) established minimum standards back in 1966 and they have not been updated since then. Many manufacturers choose to disregard vehicle crashworthiness because of inadequate government standards. When a vehicle crash causes injuries that are more severe than expected, then the possibility of crashworthiness exists. If the injuries are significant, a thorough investigation is absolutely critical to determine whether or not they were the result of a defect in the design or manufacture of the vehicle, rather than the natural consequences of the crash.