Auto Parts Liability

Introduction

Few people go through life without experiencing at least one motor vehicle accident. Fortunately, most accidents are minor mishaps like the proverbial fender bender, but, sadly, some involve not only extensive property damage, but also serious personal injuries or even death. These accidents may result from a variety of causes, including reckless driving, faulty highway design, and defective motor vehicles and component parts. In the latter cases, when a defective product is involved, the injured parties may be able to recover their losses through a products liability lawsuit.

An experienced products liability or personal injury attorney can help determine whether you may have a products liability claim arising from a defective auto part. Your attorney can provide information and representation throughout the entire legal process, in order to ensure that you secure the compensation to which you are entitled.

Products Liability Basics

Products liability law is based on the responsibility of a manufacturer or other provider of goods to compensate users of the goods for injuries caused by defective or dangerous products. The basic idea underlying products liability law is that the companies providing the products are usually in the best position to prevent defective products from entering the marketplace, so if they fail to do so, they should be held accountable. The law in this area has evolved from the days of caveat emptor (let the buyer beware) to, in some instances, strict liability, in which manufacturers are responsible for injuries caused by their defective or unreasonably dangerous products even if they were not negligent.

In a products liability action, the injured person, or plaintiff, must prove that there was a design or manufacturing defect in the product, or that the manufacturer did not adequately warn consumers about the product's possible dangers; that the product caused the injuries; and that he or she was using the product in the way it was intended to be used, or that the manufacturer should have anticipated that the product would be misused in the way that it was.

Manufacturing defects are usually easier to prove than design defects. If a car cannot go over ten miles per hour, for example, it is pretty clear that it was not manufactured as the designer intended it to be. A design-defect case, on the other hand, could arise if, for instance, many or all cars of a manufacturer's particular model lurch forward when the accelerator is not depressed. In other words, in a design-defect case, the product may have been manufactured as it was intended to be, but the design was inadequately planned in such a way as to pose unreasonable hazards to consumers. Proving a design defect involves passing judgment on technical choices and usually requires expert testimony.

Proving causation in a products liability case can be complicated. The plaintiff must establish that the product was defective when it left the hands of the defendant and that the defect was the cause of the motor vehicle accident that led to the injuries. If the injuries could have arisen from several potential causes-for example, driver error or negligent highway design as well as a product defect-the plaintiff usually must establish that the product defect had a substantial role in bringing about the injuries.

Possible legal theories that can be argued in a products liability case include negligence (lack of reasonable care in the manufacture or sale of the product or in warning about the product), breach of warranty (failure to fulfill the terms of a promise regarding the product), misrepresentation (giving consumers a false sense of security about a product's safety), and strict tort liability (the product's defect, although not the fault of the defendant, rendered the product unreasonably dangerous and the defendant is therefore responsible).

Damages recoverable in a products liability lawsuit include those for personal injuries as well as property damage. In a personal injury case, the plaintiff's damages may include medical expenses, lost wages, damages for physical and mental pain and suffering, and sometimes even punitive damages, which go beyond compensating the plaintiff for his or her actual losses and are intended to punish the wrongdoer and deter future similar bad conduct. Property damage may also result from a defective auto part, such as when someone's breaks fail and their car crashes into your house and comes to a halt in your living room. In such cases, you may be able to seek damages that would pay for all the necessary repairs to your home and property.

Defective Auto Parts Claims

Auto parts liability cases include claims involving not only passenger automobiles, but also motorcycles, trucks, and vans. Claims have been based on defects in the body and frame, brakes and braking system, cooling and temperature control system, electrical system, engine assembly, exhaust system, fuel system, lubrication system, passenger compartment, steering and suspension systems, transmission and drivetrain, and other parts and accessories.

Motor vehicle manufacturers and the makers of component parts have a duty to use reasonable care in the design of their products and to protect users from unreasonable risks of harm while the products are being used for their intended purpose or for any other purpose that could reasonably be expected. In a products liability action in which the plaintiff claims that the manufacturer was negligent, the plaintiff must prove a defect in the auto part and that the defective condition was the result of negligence in the manufacturing process or that the defendant knew or should have known about the defective condition. A manufacturer can be liable in some cases, even in the absence of proof of a specific, identifiable defect at the time of sale, liability in products cases may be founded on a product seller's misrepresentation, post-sale failure to warn, or post-sale failure to recall the product.

The motor vehicle part manufacturer owes this duty of reasonable care not only to direct users of the vehicle, but also to bystanders, such as pedestrians, who are injured as a result of a defect. There is, however, no duty to protect against all possible ways in which one may be injured, such as by preventing the theft of a car by a third party who ultimately injures someone.

The manufacturer also has a duty to warn of hazardous effects of its product. The nature of the warnings to be given and to whom they must be given depend on, among other factors,

  • harm that may result if no notice is given
  • reliability of the person (if other than the owner) to whom notice is given
  • burden involved in locating persons to whom notice should be given
  • degree of attention it can be expected that the notice will be given by the recipient
  • kind of product involved and the number manufactured or sold
  • steps taken to correct the problem

An auto parts manufacturer may be ordered to pay punitive damages, or damages that are not intended to compensate the victim but rather to punish the defendant, if the defendant consciously elected to disregard what it knew to be a genuine potential for danger. Such awards can range well into the millions of dollars.

Manufacturers do, however, have several defenses available to them in auto parts defect cases. These include contributory negligence, such as speeding; assumption of the risk, such as when a driver knows about a defect but continues using the vehicle anyway; compliance with government or industry standards, and, in some states, nonuse of seat belts or child restraints.

Conclusion

If you have been injured in an accident resulting from a defective auto part, you may be able to make a claim against the manufacturer or seller. When seeking an attorney to represent you in connection with such a claim, be sure to investigate his or her background in products liability, personal injury, or motor vehicle accident law. Ask questions about his or her training and experience so that you can make an informed decision about whether this is the right person to zealously represent your interests against a big company that may have many more resources than you do to fight the charges against it. Only with a veteran products liability, personal injury, or auto accident attorney on your side can you be sure to achieve an outcome that best compensates you for your losses.

Copyright © 1994-2006 FindLaw, a Thomson business

DISCLAIMER: This site and any information contained herein are intended for informational purposes only and should not be construed as legal advice. Seek competent legal counsel for advice on any legal matter.


View other Product Liability FAQ