Automobile Defect Litigation – Are You Missing Tort Remedies in One Car Crashes?

Black ice, moose in the road, and driver error are often accepted as adequate and final explanations for terrible injuries suffered in one car accidents. This is unfortunate and unnecessary, because passengers, including the drivers, in these events may be entitled to tort damages. Lawyers who have the chance to consult with victims of single vehicle events should consider three approaches to defect analysis which can lead to successful product liability claims. The three things to look for are defects which cause accidents, defects which cause injuries, and defects which cause “enhanced injuries.”

Defects Which Cause Crashes
Some trips in automobiles would be perfectly uneventful but for a defect which actually triggers a crash. Defects in this category include air bags which deploy spontaneously, “false park” conditions which allow sudden and unexpected movement of an idling vehicle, and stability and handling defects which make fifteen passenger vans and SUVs subject to rollover. Others include sudden acceleration or engine stalling problems associated with computer con­trolled engines, and tire detreading or exploding incidents. One recent development in this area is aged tires. Manufacturers have recently begun disclosing a problem which, arguably, they have known for years. That is, tires more than six years old can be unsafe due to chemical changes in the rubber. While an old spare tire may look like new, it may be unsafe.

Defects Which Cause Injuries
Not every automobile crash should cause an injury. Some defects cause injuries where ordinarily you would expect none at all. Examples in this category include air bags which deploy too early or too late in the sequence of crash events, those that deploy at crash speeds below the accepted threshold (8 to 14 miles per hour), and those designed without internal tethers to prevent them from getting too close to the driver. Fuel tanks and fuel lines which are punctured or which drain during a crash may result in a “fuel fed fire” causing burn injuries which are otherwise totally avoidable. In rear end collisions, some front seatbacks collapse backwards, striking children or other rear seat passengers.

Some defects cause injuries even without a crash. For example, radiator fans known as “flex fans,” designed and sold thirty years ago to enhance gas mileage, are known to fly apart, killing and maiming innocent by-standers. There have been at least two incidents of this type in Maine in recent years.

Enhanced Injuries
The term “enhanced injuries” refers to cases in which a crash occurs which is severe enough to cause some injury, but where some form of product failure makes the injury worse. Examples include roof crush cases where weak vehicle components allow the roof to crush in during a rollover event, causing a catastrophic spinal injury to one person while everyone else in the car suffers only bumps and bruises. Poor fitting seat belts and child seats can cause severe spinal or internal injuries to small passengers. “Inertial unbuckling”is a form of seat belt failure which occurs when crash forces cause a seat belt to unlatch when a passenger needs it most, during a crash. In these cases, once the plaintiff establishes that product failure made the injury worse, the burden shifts to the defense to prove what part of the damages would have occurred anyway, in spite of the defect.

While it can be expensive to fully investigate these cases, severely injured clients deserve a careful analysis of the evidence. The fact that only one vehicle is involved should not be seen as a barrier to tort recovery, even where the injured person is the driver.