Rollover Car Accidents – Three Questions for Quick Case Analysis

A rollover car products liability case presents many challenges including looking at contributing factors including weather, road conditions and driver error. Accident reconstruction specialists may be needed. Are there claims for negligent driving in addition to the car product liability?


Rollover car accidents present tough challenges to lawyers seeking to understand whether products liability remedies may be available to their injured clients. How do weather, road conditions, and driver error affect the assessment of the potential products case? Should the wreck be preserved?

Is it worth hiring an accident reconstruction specialist to immediately assess the scene? Is it reasonable to have the client pay for these investigative steps? Should a companion claim against a negligent driver be settled or kept open while the products liability case is explored?

These and other questions require prompt and practical answers. Three fundamental questions can help to break the case down into manageable pieces:
What caused the vehicle to go sideways?
What caused the vehicle to roll over?
What caused plaintiff’s injury?
While these questions will not yield a final answer as to the viability or advisability of a product defect case, asking them sequentially and as a set will provide a useful early screening of potential defect arguments, and help to focus further investigative efforts.

I. What caused the vehicle to go sideways?

Before a vehicle can roll over, it must be going sideways. More technically stated, there must be a velocity vector in some direction other than along the long axis of the car or truck. For practical purposes, that means that some force must act on the car from either the driver’s or passenger’s side, and that the car will, at least briefly before the roll, have a sideways component to its motion.

For early legal analysis, it is a mistake to get technical with the question. All you really need to ask is, “Why was the car forced sideways?” A vehicle defect such as a tire blow out, a wheel falling off, or a brake locking up can result in sideways forces, and can be the triggering event to sideways motion. More often, however, some problem other than a product defect throws the vehicle off course. A small car may be driven sideways by a larger one in a T-bone collision.

On ice, losing traction can convert forward motion into sideways motion. On a sharp curve, centrifugal force pushes the car out toward the edge of the roadway. A driver’s legitimate emergency evasive maneuvers may combine with something like a sideswipe collision, sending the vehicle sideways. Driver error in the form of excessive speed and poor response to road conditions often exacerbates problems like these, and cannot be ignored in rollover analysis.

Witness statements, the wrecked vehicle(s), and the scene are all critical sources of information on what started the vehicle going sideways.

If plaintiff is lucky, the evidence may lead to the conclusion that it was a product defect which started the chain of events leading to rollover and resulting in the injury. However, the evidence can be difficult to sort out and hard to reconcile. Even if the wreck is missing a wheel or tire upon post-accident inspection, plaintiff must be sure that the failure occurred before the rollover, as opposed to because of it. If product failure triggers the events which lead to rollover, plaintiff is lucky because he or she may be able to avoid many of the difficult proximate cause problems discussed below. Even when the source of the sideways forces is a collision or something else which cannot be tied directly to a product defect, identifying the source of those forces is still critically important to evaluating a rollover case. The magnitude, duration and direction of the forces is evidence which is either going to help plaintiff or defendant on issues such as defect, proximate cause, intervening cause, or comparative fault. The sooner and the better plaintiff understands the evidence on these issues, the sooner and the more accurately the rest of the case can be analyzed.

II. What caused the vehicle to roll over?

Many vehicles are subjected to sideways forces, but only a few roll over. What makes the difference? What makes a particular vehicle roll? Rollover occurs when a sideways force is sufficiently powerful to both tip the vehicle up, and to overcome the gravitational force trying to pull it back down. Often, a rollover involves a complicating condition such as a pot hole, a soft shoulder at the edge of the road, the scrubbing of tires sideways across dry pavement, or the presence of a rut or curb. Any of these can “trip” the vehicle as it moves sideways, converting the sideways motion into a rollover. Explaining the “tripping” mechanism and how it contributed to the rollover is part of plaintiff’s burden of proof in a rollover product liability case.

Plaintiff’s challenge is to demonstrate that, despite the “tripping” factor, a properly designed and stable vehicle would not have rolled over.The capacity of a vehicle to stay upright while being subjected to sideways forces is referred to as its stability. On one end of the stability spectrum is the double-decker tourist bus which is made to provide a soft ride over bumpy city streets. It rocks from side to side very easily, and must be driven slowly to remain upright. On the other end of the spectrum is the lowslung race car, which is made to zip around corners on a smooth track. It doesn’t lean at all as it corners, and only tips over in the most spectacular crashes.

Just as in these two extreme examples, the stability of a passenger car, truck, or SUV depends on its height and width, its weight distribution, and its suspension. A modern factor which can improve the stability of newer cars is computerized steering, braking, and drive systems. They enhance stability by monitoring the rotation of each wheel individually, allowing an on-board computer to identify and counteract the effects of sideways forces with an efficiency and precision of which humans are simply incapable.

These systems are remarkably effective, as statistics from the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration show that SUVs with electronic stability control systems are involved in 63 percent fewer fatal single vehicle crashes than those without such systems.

A vehicle may be defective and unreasonably dangerous if its center of gravity is too high, if the seller does not warn the user about proper load distribution and limitations, or if the manufacturer fails to provide effective modern stability features such as anti-lock brakes or traction control. Asking what caused the vehicle to roll over may lead to one of these stability defect arguments, and to additional important questions.

If a Toyota 4Runner rolls over during evasive braking on dry pavement, the victim’s family and a jury will want to know that there is a history of similar incidents, and what Toyota did about them. If a Ford Explorer rolls over after a new Firestone tire fails suddenly, the victim’s family and a jury will want to examine whether the proximate cause of the incident was a tire problem,an Explorer problem, or both.

There is engineering information available from prior cases which suggests that the design of the FordExplorer and defects in Firestone tires have acted together to cause serious injuries in rollover crashes. If a Jeep CJ-5 rolls over while cornering at a speed of under 25 miles an hour, the victim and a jury will want to know what stability testing was done before the vehicle was marketed and sold as a fun way to meet a family’s transportation needs.

III. What caused the plaintiff’s injury?

When it is possible to prove that a vehicle defect caused the sideways motion which led to the rollover, or that a stability defect substantially contributed to the rollover, then the exact mechanism of plaintiff’s injury does not matter. In both of those instances, as long as plaintiff can prove the defect was a proximate cause of the rollover, any resulting injury will be compensable.

However, if a vehicle defect did not cause or substantially contribute to the rollover itself, there still may be a viable products case. In these circumstances, plaintiff will have a viable products claim if she can show that, despite the rollover, no injury would have occurred had the vehicle been crashworthy (sturdy enough to stand up to predictable crash forces).

Some common crashworthiness claims which arise in rollover cases are inadequate roof strength, seatbelt failure and door latch failure.

Roof crush cases usually involve head and neck injuries which result from the roof collapsing into the passenger compartment during rollover, crushing and pinning the occupants.

Seatbelt claims involve failures which allow plaintiff to be thrown from the protective cocoon of the seat.

These failures could involve the seatbelt buckle coming open when it shouldn’t, or failure of the retraction system allowing the belt to spool out and become too loose to effectively retain plaintiff in the seat. Door latch failure cases arise when, during rollover, impacts between the vehicle and the ground cause the doors to fly open, allowing occupants to be ejected all together or allowing their limbs to be pinned and crushed outside the vehicle.

There are many other kinds of vehicle defects which cause injury in rollover accidents. Understanding the specific mechanism of plaintiff’s injury is critical in crashworthiness cases because of plaintiff’s need to demonstrate proximate cause issue.

IV. Conclusion

In the aftermath of a rollover accident, a plaintiff may not know where to start in assessing the potential for a product defect case. Counsel can help by reviewing the evidence in terms of pre-roll events: what caused the car to go off course and move sideways, and what caused the roll itself ; or post-roll events: what was the proximate cause of the injury? Although each accident is unique, these fundamental issues have been successfully addressed in prior cases. Step-by-step analysis will allow plaintiffs and their lawyers to make judicious use of resources, and to make sound decisions on how far to proceed with a particular case before consulting with experts.