Cars

What would cars be like without the civil justice system?

In the 1960s, court cases began highlighting the dangers of car design and the willful negligence of manufacturers in designing cars that they knew to be unsafe. Since then the civil justice system has worked hand-in-hand with regulation to protect Americans, while spurring generations of safety innovations. The drop in car crash fatalities is due in large part to the fact that cars are getting safer.

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★ GAS TANKS
Several car manufacturers, including GM and Ford, designed defective gas tank placement, which resulted in fires and explosions even in minor collisions. As a result of litigation, gas tanks are now universally located within rigid frames.

★ DOOR LATCHES
Ford’s own engineers identified the problem with its “paddle-style” handles, which
allowed the doors to accidentally open in collisions. But rather than fix the design, Ford covered up the problem until held accountable in court.

★ AIR BAGS
Auto manufacturers began developing air bag technology in the 1950s, yet were extremely slow in installing it. By 1988, only two percent of new cars came equipped with air bags. Courts found that manufacturers knew their cars were safer with airbags and that many lives could have been saved had they been included. Eventually, manufacturers were forced to install air bags in all cars.

★ TIRES
Tire manufacturers from Firestone to Goodyear tried to cover up problems with defective tires and have been held accountable in the courts. Firestone’s defective tires caused 271 deaths, and the resulting litigation brought tires and their manufacturers under increased scrutiny.

★ SEATS
Safety engineers call the prevalence of weakened seats the “most egregious, widespread defect to be found.” Weak seats
can collapse in even low-speed impacts and kill rear passengers. Without adequate regulatory standards, only court cases were able to highlight manufacturers’ negligence and force them to install stronger seats in all cars instead of just certain models.

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★ SEAT BELTS
Court cases went a long way in highlighting the dangers of inferior seat belts, or no seat belts at all. One example was Chrysler’s defective Gen 3 seatbelt, installed in more than 14 million cars and proven to unlatch in accidents. Both seat belts and seats themselves were redesigned in response to litigation.

★ POWER WINDOWS
As power windows became more common, so did deaths associated with them. Children were especially vulnerable through accidental depression of rocker-style window switches. The inexpensive solution, a lift-up style switch, was ignored by several manufacturers in order to cut costs, but litigation eventually forced universal acceptance of the safer switches.

★ ROOF CRUSH
Vehicle manufacturers, particularly makers of SUVs, had long known roof strength was a critical weakness during rollovers. Without adequate regulatory standards, it was only litigation that forced manufacturers to begin strengthening roofs.

★ IGNITION SWITCHES
As early as 2001, GM knew that an ignition switch used in its cars was defectively designed and could allow the ignition to slip from the “run” position to the “accessory” position while the car was in motion, causing the engine to lose power and leaving the driver unable to adequately steer or brake. A lawsuit filed by the family of a woman who died when her 2005 Chevy Cobalt lost power exposed the problem and forced GM to recall more than 2.6 million cars.

AUTO SAFETY IN THE COURTS:

Grimshaw v. Ford Motor Company (1981)
GM could have fixed their gas tanks for $8.40 per car, but calculated that paying for 500 fatal accidents would cost only $2.40 per car. GM admitted that seats costing just $1 more could reduce injury levels by up to 90 percent. The Ford Pinto became the most notorious example of a corporation putting profits ahead of safety after court cases highlighted a design flaw that left the gas tank unprotected, resulting in explosions, even in minor rear-end accidents. Litigation revealed that Ford knew of the design problem and determined it could be fixed for as little as $11 per car, but calculated it would be more profitable to sell the car as is and let occupants burn to death. The Pinto’s design met all government standards at that time. Had compliance with federal standards been a complete defense, as many in the auto industry have proposed over the years, Ford could not have been held responsible for the many burn victims that the company itself anticipated. Litigation spurred the adoption of requirements for fuel tank performance in rear-end collisions.

Originally published in “Why we need a strong civil justice system” by AAJ, June 2014.

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