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Motor Vehicle Defects

By Aaron Larson
March, 2005


In recent decades, with the improvement of vehicle crashworthiness and the addition of passive safety features, motor vehicles have become much safer than in the past. As a result of these safety advances, many auto accidents which once would have resulted in serious injury or fatality now result in minor injury. However, defects in motor vehicles can still contribute to accidents and injuries, and in some cases a product liability claim may exist against the manufacturer.

Accident Safety

No car can be made completely safe. However, auto manufacturers are supposed to design and construct vehicles which are reasonably safe under current regulations and safety standards. When they fail to meet the expected standard of care, they may be liable if a defect in the design or construction of a vehicle causes an accident or contributes to the injury of an occupant of a vehicle.

Potential Problem Areas

Due to the nature of highway travel, there are few features on an automobile which, if defective in their design or manufacture, could not diminish the safety of a vehicle's passengers or the driving public. Common points of failure which may lead to litigation include:

Vehicle Rollover - Defective design or manufacture of a vehicle may increase its potential to roll over. Rollover accidents are particularly dangerous to the occupants of motor vehicles. 15-passenger vans, certain trucks, and SUV's are at particular risk of rollover.

Defective Tires - Defects in a tire can result in tread separation or blowout, possibly causing a driver to lose control of the vehicle.

Defective Seat Backs - During an accident, a defective seat back may cause the seat back to fail, which can result in injury to a rear seat passenger, or may cause the person in the defective seat to be ejected into the back seat of the vehicle.

Seat Belt Failure - The failure of a seat belt may cause the occupant of a vehicle to strike parts of the vehicle's interior, or may result in the occupant being ejected from the vehicle.

Third Party Modifications - Sometimes aftermarket modifications and accessories will render a vehicle less safe or unsafe. For example, a custom headlight or fog light system may be dangerous for oncoming drivers, and an unlawfully dark window tint may impair visibility.

Difficult Determinations

When evaluating a vehicle defect claim, the plaintiff's lawyer may suggest that the cure for the vehicle's alleged defect would have been only a few dollars, or even a few cents, in additional cost during manufacture. The purpose of this argument is to suggest that it was the manufacturer's greed - the saving of a dollar or two per vehicle - which caused the plaintiff to suffer severe injury. The counter to this argument is that everything can be made safer, and it is possible to point to hundreds of areas on any given motor vehicle which could be rendered more safe with relatively small investment. The cumulative cost of those safety improvements could render the price of a vehicle unreasonable - and the vehicle still would not be perfectly safe. The real question is when the vehicle is reasonably safe, not whether it should be perfectly safe.

Nonetheless, there are situations where a defect is so patent, or a design or manufacturing error so manifest, that finding the manufacturer liable for the resulting injury should be relatively non-controvercial.

About The Author
Aaron Larson is a Michigan lawyer whose practice emphasizes civil appeals and litigation consulting. Copyright © 2005, Aaron Larson, all rights reserved.
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