Created by FindLaw’s team of legal writers and editors
| Last updated December 04, 2018
Motor vehicle defect cases include claims involving not only passenger automobiles, but also motorcycles, trucks, and vans. Unlike an ordinary personal injury claim for negligence after a motor vehicle accident, in order to establish a vehicle manufacturer or seller’s liability for a car defect, you do not need to show that they were careless.
Claims may be based on defects in:
- The body and frame,
- Brakes and braking system,
- Cooling and temperature control system,
- Electrical system,
- Engine assembly,
- Exhaust system,
- Fuel system,
- Lubrication system,
- Passenger compartment,
- Steering and suspension systems,
- Transmission and drivetrain, and other parts and accessories.
Again, carelessness is not a requirement under the strict liability legal standard. Instead, liability in motor vehicle defect cases is controlled by the doctrine of strict liability. Regardless of what steps a manufacturer or dealer says it takes in designing, assembling, or handling a motor vehicle, you can make a strict liability claim based on a motor vehicle defect — without making any showing as to carelessness — if all three of the following conditions exist:
- The vehicle or one of its components had an “unreasonably dangerous” defect that injured you. The defect can come into existence either in the design of the vehicle, during manufacture, during handling or shipment (i.e. delivery from the manufacturer), or through a failure to warn consumers of a dangerous aspect of the vehicle.
- The defect caused an injury while the vehicle was being used in a way that it was intended to be used. For example, you may not be able to recover if a sports sedan were used to cross a stream.
- The vehicle had not been substantially changed from the condition in which it was originally sold. “Substantially” means in a way that affects how the vehicle performs.
Defenses to Defective Motor Vehicle Lawsuits
The vehicle manufacturer and/or the seller may have a defense to your strict liability claims, particularly if you have owned the vehicle for some time, if it can be shown that you knew about the defect but continued to use the vehicle anyway. This is usually established either through the vehicle’s condition (which the manufacturer’s or seller’s insurance company will be able to examine if you bring a claim) or from your own description of your use of the vehicle. In some states, a manufacturer or seller may also be able to defend against your motor vehicle defect claim under the theory that your contributory or comparative negligence was the cause of, or a factor in, your injuries.
A recent trend in vehicle product liability cases is to increase awards of punitive damages for those who successfully bring a claim against a manufacturer or seller. These punitive damages awards are above and beyond damages to compensate a plaintiff for his or her injuries, and can range into the tens of millions of dollars in certain instances. Punitive damages are intended to punish vehicle manufacturers and encourage them to fix inherent defects in vehicle designs that have resulted in injury.
Traditionally, vehicle manufacturers have engaged in what is known as a “cost-benefit” analysis when deciding whether to change a potentially defective vehicle design. In this process, the manufacturer will calculate the cost of implementing a design change (i.e. through vehicle recalls and repairs), and weigh that cost against the potential cost of litigation and settlement after the defect causes injuries. Punitive damages are often awarded in order to add to the potential costs a manufacturer will face if it decides not to fix a design defect, thus shifting the cost-benefit analysis toward the elimination of defects.
Product liability actions are often quite complex, and establishing legal fault often requires the assistance and testimony of experts. There are several theories under which a plaintiff might bring a claim, and several defenses that might defeat such a claim. Additionally, every state has its own laws and specific statutes that will affect a product liability action. Accordingly, it is important to consult an experienced attorney if you or a loved one suffers injury caused by a potentially defective product.
Questions about Defective Motor Vehicle Lawsuits? An Attorney can Help
A successful claim against an auto manufacturer can cost the company millions of dollars, so you can be certain that they will fight a product liability claim with a big legal team and the most aggressive defense they can develop. Having a lawyer in your corner can help even the odds and ensure that you get fairly compensated. Contact an experienced local attorney to discuss your claim.