Car Safety

Car safety is one of the areas where civil lawsuits and jury trials have made and continue to make a big difference in the safety of the American people. It is one of the greatest success stories in safety litigation.

It’s impossible to know for sure the impact these lawsuits have had on the safety of cars in the US, but car fatalities in the US are at an all-time low, although Americans drive more miles than ever.

If the car accident fatality rate in 2010 were the same as it was in 1965, the year that the courts decided manufacturers had a duty to make their cars safe in accidents (see Corvair, below), there would have been more than 148,000 people killed in car accidents. Instead, only about 32,000 people were killed. Through the action of civil lawsuits, more than 100,000 American lives are saved every year.

Auto Manufacturers Have a Duty of Care to Purchasers

One of the first and most important car safety lawsuits was MacPherson vs. Buick (1916). The wooden wheels on MacPherson’s 1909 Buick Runabout broke while the car was in motion. MacPherson was thrown from the vehicle and injured. He sued Buick, although he had bought the vehicle from a dealer and the wheel was made by another company. A jury ruled in favor of MacPherson, and Buick appealed.

The appeal court upheld the jury’s verdict and stated clearly that “If danger was to be expected as reasonably certain [from a negligently constructed automobile], there was a duty of vigilance.” It also made it clear that the manufacturer has the final responsibility for the safety of its product: “[Buick] was not merely a dealer in automobiles. It was a manufacturer of automobiles. It was responsible for the finished product. It was not at liberty to put the finished product on the market without subjecting the component parts to ordinary and simple tests.”

The Infamous Corvair: “Unsafe at Any Speed”

The Chevy Corvair represents another important step in the progress of litigation for car safety. The Corvair was a rear-wheel drive vehicle with a rear mounted engine, the first built by a US manufacturer. Released in 1960 to compete with the popularity of the VW Beetle, the weight imbalance in the Corvair caused it to be unstable—about 62% of the weight was in the rear of the car. When turning, this could cause the car to spin out of control at relatively slow speeds, resulting in deadly accidents.

The most famous victim of the Corvair’s design flaw was comedian Ernie Kovacs, killed at age 42 when his Corvair spun out of control on a rain-slicked street and struck a utility pole. But he was not alone. By the time Ralph Nader published his famous book that highlighted the Corvair’s stability problem, there were 106 lawsuits against General Motors over Corvair accidents. The Corvair lawsuits were often settled, but when they went to court they established a new paradigm. An auto manufacturer was held responsible for ensuring its cars did not have dangerous design flaws.

Another important case related to the Corvair is Larsen v. General Motors (1965), in which an appeals court decided that making a vehicle “reasonably safe” for its intended use included making the vehicle capable or protecting its occupants in the event of a crash, which was something that was statistically likely over the lifetime of a vehicle’s use. This is the origin of many of the crash standards we look to today.

Explosive Fuel Tanks: What Is the Cost of Human Life?

Gasoline is explosive, and one of the major perils of driving a gasoline-powered vehicle is that a punctured fuel tank can result in a fatal fire or explosion. The most infamous case of an allegedly defective automobile is the Ford Pinto, whose rear-mounted fuel tank was vulnerable to puncture by bolts in the assembly. Even at relatively low-speed collisions, the fuel tank could be punctured, resulting in leaking fuel. The Pinto fuel tank also had a short neck that could be broken off easily in accidents. The case became infamous when a 1977 article argued that Ford knew about the defect and had an $11 fix for it, but decided not to implement the correction because it would be cheaper to pay off accident victims and the families that had lost loved ones. The outrage at this perceived callous approach to safety led to a verdict of $6 million against Ford, including $3.5 million in punitive damages—damages granted just to punish Ford.

Unfortunately, this was not the last fuel tank problem that led to accidents and fiery death for drivers and passengers. In the case of Moseley v. General Motors, first heard in 1993, GM was held accountable for placing its side-saddle fuel tanks outside the frame of the vehicle, making it more vulnerable to side impact damage, resulting in leaks and fires. A jury trial found that GM had known about the defect since the 1970s, but had not corrected the defect or warned the public of the danger before the 1989 side impact accident that killed Shannon Moseley. The jury awarded $4.5 million in compensatory and $101 million in punitive damages, but that verdict was overturned by an appeals court because some of the evidence was found to be inadmissible. In addition, deals made between GM and the NHTSA meant that GM did not have to recall the trucks, but only dedicate $51 million to safety programs.

Tire Defects and Safety Dangers

There have been many allegations that defective tires lead to deadly accidents. One important case was the Firestone 500 tire. This radial tire was the first built by Firestone, and it was known to be defective within the first year of its introduction. In a 1972 internal memo, Firestone officials wrote, “We are badly in need of an improvement in belt separation performance, particularly at General Motors, where we are in danger of being cut off by Chevrolet because of separation failures.” But as late as 1978, Firestone asserted to government officials there was no defect in the tires.

Firestone’s tires faced another charge of tread separation in 2000, when hundreds of lawsuits were filed against it and Ford for tread separation that caused rollover accidents mostly on the Ford Explorer. These lawsuits were instrumental in encouraging the recall of the tires and redesigns on the Ford Explorer for added stability.

We Must Keep Our Watch to Maintain Our Safety

Don’t let corporations take this important check on their power away. We know that without constant vigilance they will allow safety defects to creep back into their vehicle designs. Join the fight to protect your right to a jury trial today.