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Pursing Product Liability Claim in Vehicle Defect Lawsuit

Product liability in vehicle crashes can be difficult to establish, but is nonetheless an important legal theory to explore following a collision. Vehicle makers – just like the producers of any consumer product – have a responsibility to make sure it is reasonably safe. In general, vehicles can be defective if they are unreasonably dangerous by design or defectively manufactured. Some claims also stem from insufficient consumer warnings/ failure to warn. 

Some of the common vehicle defects we’ve seen in Orlando car accident cases include faulty:

  • Engines
  • Brakes
  • Tires/ wheels
  • Fuel systems
  • Ignition
  • Airbags
  • Body/ frame

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) estimates about 2 percent of vehicle crashes can be attributed in whole or in part to a vehicle defect. Even if a vehicle defect isn’t the cause of a crash, it can be the reason injuries are far worse. For example, a poorly-placed fuel tank may not cause two vehicles to collide, but it may leave one of those vehicles more prone to a deadly fire when that fuel tank is struck, resulting in far more severe injuries – or wrongful death – that may otherwise have been avoided. 

In general, plaintiffs in these cases must prove:

  • There was a defect that made the vehicle unreasonably dangerous;
  • The injury occurred while vehicle was being used in a way that was reasonable/ reasonably foreseeable;
  • The vehicle defect proximately resulted in injury;
  • The vehicle was substantially in the same condition in which it was sold.

A recent case out of Virginia underscores why these cases can be challenging.

Plaintiff was the widow of a man who was injured at work while operating a vehicle called a lift truck. He had not completed training to do so, but the plant was short-staffed one day and he was asked to help. After making several trips, the vehicle became stuck. With the help of a co-worker, he pulled the lift truck out of the gap, parked the truck, turned it off and applied the parking brake (an alarm should have sounded if the parking brake was not engaged). The truck was situated on an incline with a 12 percent grade. As he worked to unhitch the truck from the other vehicle used to tow it out of the gap, the vehicle rolled and crushed him, killing him instantly. A post-accident investigation of the incident revealed the parking brake had been out of adjustment.

His widow filed a wrongful death lawsuit against numerous defendants, including the manufacturer of the truck, alleging it was negligently designed and committed breach of express/ implied warranties. An expert witness was called to testify as to the negligent design of the parking brake. He acknowledged that placing an untrained operator at the helm was misuse of the product, but but insisted the design defect was unreasonably dangerous because it failed to eliminate misuse by the operator. This misuse, he said, was foreseeable.

The jury found the vehicle was negligently designed and awarded $4.2 million in damages. Defendant moved to set that verdict aside, arguing contributory negligence and that evidence failed as a matter of law to prove the brake was unreasonably dangerous. Trial court set aside the verdict on basis of contributory negligence. Plaintiff appealed. The Virginia Supreme Court affirmed, but on the alternate basis of plaintiff’s failure to establish negligent design as a matter of law. The court held that while the jury could have concluded from evidence that a proposed redesign would have reduced the likelihood of an accident, there was not enough evidence for jurors to conclude it would have been a safer overall product. Further, it could also be true, the court held, that operators and bystanders might face a greater risk of injury with the proposed redesign.

Although this was a work vehicle accident – and not your typical on-the-road crash, the same general principles of product liability apply. Our wrongful death car accident attorneys can help you examine all your legal options if you believe your loved one’s death was the result of a defective product.

Call Freeman Injury Law — 1-800-561-7777 for a free appointment to discuss your rights. Now serving Orlando, West Palm Beach, Port St. Lucie and Fort Lauderdale.

Additional Resources:

Evans v. NACCO Materials Handling Group, March 22, 2018, Virginia Supreme Court

More Blog Entries:

Sunroof Safety Questioned Amid Stagnant Standards and Crash Injuries, March 28, 2018, Orlando Car Accident Attorney Blog

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