Consumer Law Newsletter
Defects in SUV's and Product Liability
“Sport Utility Vehicles” (SUV’s) have become increasingly popular. It has been estimated that SUV’s comprise 25% or more of new car sales, as opposed to only 2% in 1985. Unfortunately, serious questions have been raised about the safety of SUV’s. The potential danger does not appear to have impeded the growth of SUV popularity, nor deterred many people from purchasing SUV’s, but has spawned a fair amount of highly-publicized litigation arising out of such accidents.
SUV’s and “Rollovers”
It has been suggested that one of the appeals of SUV’s is that the driver sits high off of the road, thereby providing greater road visibility. However, this high center of gravity makes SUV’s more unstable. Experts have noted that any increase in the amount of weight being carried, whether passengers, objects being transported, or even a full tank of gas, may exacerbate the problem and increase instability. One result of the increased instability is a tendency to rollover in situations when vehicles with lower centers of gravity would not rollover.
Commentators suggest that rollovers of vehicles are not as common as other types of accidents, but when rollovers do occur, they are more likely to result in serious injury or death. It is estimated that SUV rollovers accounted for more than 10,000 deaths in 1999 and thousands of injuries. More than 90% of rollovers occur when the vehicle is “tripped”, i.e., when a driver runs off the road, then tries to veer back onto the road, or swerves to avoid hitting something. The driver may then lose control of the vehicle. A ditch, guard rail, soft soil, a curb, loose gravel, or other object or condition then trips the vehicle, initiating a rollover.
The federal National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) conducted tests to estimate the “rollover resistance rating” of vehicles, i.e. essentially how top heavy and prone to rollover they are. The NHTSA thereafter assigns stars to vehicles; five stars for the most stable, down to one star to indicate the least stable. Although the results varied even among the same type of vehicle, in general vehicles with high centers of gravity and a narrower “track” relative to the height, such as SUV’s, pick-up trucks, and vans, were more likely to roll over. As a result of such tests, SUV’s must carry a warning label that states the danger of rollovers and other problems.
Product Liability Principles
“Product liability” is the area of the law providing victims of injuries resulting from defective products a means of redress. Product liability is mostly created by state law and judicial decisions in actual cases, therefore the principles and procedures for filing a claim or lawsuit vary depending on the jurisdiction.
In virtually all jurisdictions, a victim may recover damages for injuries resulting from use of a “defective product.” “Product” includes vehicles and their component parts. A “defective” product is commonly defined as one that is “unreasonably dangerous” for the purposes, and foreseeable uses, for which the product was intended. A product may be dangerous in a number of respects: a particular version of a product may have a “manufacturing” defect; there may be a “design” defect that makes each incarnation of that product dangerous; or there may be a failure to warn of known defects or to give proper instructions on use to avoid danger.
A claim may be pursued on the following theories:
- Negligence of the defendant-the defendant failed in their duty to provide a safe product, resulting in the injuries;
- The product failed to conform to a written or implied warranty of fitness for its intended use; or
- The product was defective when it left the defendant’s hands and was dangerous for its intended use, regardless of what the defendants might have done to make it safe.
SUV’s and Product Liability
Not surprisingly, there were accidents with SUV’s almost from the time they were introduced. After numerous rollovers, there were lawsuits brought in the 1990’s against Ford Motor Company related to the “Explorer” model, although it was unclear whether the rollovers were due to defects in the vehicle’s design or defects in the vehicle’s tires. In 2002, Ford reached a $51.5 million nationwide settlement with the attorney generals of several states to resolve allegations that Ford misled consumers about SUV safety.
In a 2002 case, a California jury ruled that Ford’s SUV vehicle was “defective by design,” in that it had a “propensity” to rollover. An Explorer purchased by Agop and Catherine Gozukara rolled over in 1997, three months after purchase, causing severe leg injuries in Agop and paralysis in his wife Catherine. On the other hand, a jury in Texas found for Ford in a 1995 rollover case, in which two people were killed. The jury found that Ford did not “knowingly” design a defective vehicle. In 2004, Ford settled another rollover crash case after a jury awarded Bob Miller’s family $5.3 million for Miller’s death and was considering whether to award an additional $48 million in punitive damages.
Under certain circumstances, judges and juries can award punitive damages against a defendant, usually where the conduct of the defendant was particularly outrageous and reprehensible. The punitive damages are usually awarded in addition to “compensatory” damages designed to compensate the victim for both financial damages, such as lost wages and medical bills, and non-economic damages, such as pain and suffering, and loss of love and affection.
In 2003, a California court awarded $290 million in punitive damages against Ford in a case of a fatal Bronco crash. On appeal, the punitive award was reduced by 90% by a court of appeals, based upon a U.S. Supreme Court decision, indicating that punitive damage awards should not exceed nine times the compensatory damage award, or $4.9 million in this case.
In June, 2004, however, a San Diego jury awarded $122.6 million in compensatory and $246 million in punitive damages to Benetta Buell-Wilson against Ford. Benetta was paralyzed from the waist down as the result a rollover accident where the roof of her Ford Explorer collapsed. The judge in the case reduced the punitive award to $75 million. The punitive damage award arose out of a finding that Ford manufactured the vehicle despite warnings from its own engineers criticizing the design as unsafe; the jury found Ford ignored the design defects in order to maximize profits. On appeal, the court reduced the amount of non-economic damages to $18 million and the punitive damages to $55 million.
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