Manufacturer Defenses in Automotive Products Liability Cases
The basic elements of proof that a plaintiff has to establish in a products liability action against the manufacturer or seller of a motor vehicle are that the vehicle as sold contained a defect that created an unreasonable risk of death, personal injury, or property damage when the vehicle was put to its intended use and that the defect caused an accident or similar incident, such as a vehicle fire, that resulted in the loss or damage for which the plaintiff seeks to recover damages. Vehicle defects can include shortcomings in the design of a vehicle, mistakes in the manufacture of its component parts or in their assembly into a complete car or truck, and failure to warn the purchaser or operator of a risk inherent in the use and operation of the vehicle. Manufacturers have a number of defenses available to them in seeking to prevent a plaintiff from succeeding in an automotive products liability action.
The most basic defense available to a manufacturer is the obvious one that the condition pointed to by the plaintiff either did not constitute a defect in the vehicle or that even if it did, it was not the cause of the injury or loss complained of. A manufacturer may attempt to establish a misuse defense, asserting that the operation or use of the vehicle was improper and need not have been anticipated by the manufacturer. (Some courts, however, will find that a certain degree of “foreseeable misuse” has to be taken into account by manufacturers, who are deemed to be aware of the types of conduct that drivers and passengers sometimes engage in.) Manufacturers will often seek to employ what is referred to as the seat belt defense, arguing that a vehicle occupant’s injuries were increased by his or her failure to make use of the available seat belts in the vehicle. Such a defense is likely to come into play when a jury is considering the comparative fault of the parties in the course of making decisions on liability and damages.
The law of products liability in the United States, including automotive products liability law, has evolved for more than half a century out of the separate legal systems of the individual states rather than out of a single unified body of federal law. As a result, the legal standards governing the availability and employment of manufacturer defenses in automotive products liability cases will vary from state to state.