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Civil Justice System Drives Auto Safety Innovations

Do You Know?

Each time, it seems auto manufacturers claim they didn’t know… and then it turns out that they did.

Every time, it seems, federal enforcers such as the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration drop the ball, incapable of acting until people die, long after safety violations are first reported.

It makes you wonder:

  • What can we really do to hold greedy automakers responsible for their decisions to place profit before the safety of drivers and passengers?
  • If manufacturers don’t have the integrity or responsible judgment; if laws don’t have sufficient “teeth” and if government agencies don’t have the ability or resources, what protects our families from death and serious injury?

The answer is the civil justice system… which continues to protect our rights and work on our behalf. In lawsuits against negligent auto manufacturers, verdicts in favor of innocent victims are often the only things, which put automakers’ feet to the fire. The evidence is clear: Litigation has been the driving force behind a staggering number of safety innovations that would not have occurred otherwise.

Civil Justice System Drives Auto Safety Innovations

In the 1960’s, motor vehicle safety was in a very sorry state and regulation of manufacturers for the safety of their vehicles was largely nonexistent. Up until then, automakers were held liable only for defects implicated in deaths and injuries in accidents that had already occurred – not for a defect’s potential for causing even more mayhem on the road. Car making was all about style, not safety, even though manufacturers knew well that design and mechanical elements of their cars could kill and maim.

In a report issued in April 2010, The American Association of Justice (AAJ) meticulously documents a chronology of improvements in auto safety, tying each advance to court cases that highlighted automakers’ negligence. In most of these cases, safety changes can be traced directly to the damage awards imposed.

The AAJ report estimates that in those days, safety measures could have cost as little as 23 cents per car, compared to $700 a car for the style that manufacturers were focusing on. Yet auto manufacturers steadfastly ignored safety considerations. Fortunately, lawsuits filed by victims of automobile defects in the 1960s began shining a spotlight on manufacturers’ negligence and nonchalance. Here is a brief summary of some of the litigation to which we owe the modicum of safety we enjoy today. (Go to to read AAJ’s full report, “Driven to Safety: How Litigation Spurred Auto Safety Innovations.”)

Gas Tanks

If there were only one product that could be credited for igniting public fury over unsafe automobiles, it would be the Ford Pinto. Because of a faulty design, unprotected gas tanks exploded into flames in even minor collisions. Civil Justice System Drives Auto Safety Innovations In 1981, a California appeals court awarded $125 million in punitive damages to victims of Pinto explosions. This was perhaps one of the first cases in which a callous disregard for consumer safety could actually be documented. The substantial punitive damage award resulted from the discovery of internal memos in which Ford executives calculated the cost of deaths and injuries against the cost of recalling all the Pintos.

They decided it was far more economical to pay for deaths and injuries than it was to institute a recall. Although the amount of punitive damages against Ford was later reduced, it sent a clear message to corporations: Do not sacrifice the safety of consumers in favor of maximizing profits. The case, and others like it, also highlighted a need for better oversight by Congress, which adopted new requirements for fuel tank protection in rear-end accidents. Ultimately, car manufacturers – not just Ford – redesigned placement of gas tanks to withstand at least a 50 mile-per-hour hit.

Side Impact Design

After a New Jersey police officer was left a quadriplegic in an accident where his car struck a steel pole, attorneys argued that the car’s inability to withstand impact at even low speeds was because of a non-continuous frame with a gap between front and rear sections. This was a defect already known within the industry. Big automaker Chrysler Corporation said it had no obligation to produce a “crash proof” car, that the officer’s car met regulations, and that a continuous frame would add $300 to the car’s price. The court held that the Chrysler’s vehicle design was defective – which prompted auto manufacturers to begin making continuous frames and adopting other protective measures.

Seat Belts

While seat belts have been around since the 1930s and became mandatory in new cars in 1968, it may come as a surprise that they didn’t always work. For decades, defective seatbelts were responsible for deaths and devastating injuries in automobile accidents. In the late 1990s, at least 15 deaths and 18 serious injuries were blamed on a seat belt installed in 14 million Chrysler cars and minivans. While recognizing the problem, Chrysler continued to install the defective belts in some of its models. Then, in 2000, a court awarded $6.7 million against Chrysler and the seat belt manufacturer in a rollover case where the seat belt came unlatched. It was the court’s decision that forced Chrysler and other companies to install safer seat belts.

Roof Crush

It was not until 1971 that the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (then called the National Highway Safety Bureau) tackled the challenge of roof strength standards to protect drivers and passengers from roof crushes in rollover accidents.  At least a decade before, automakers had realized that their cars’ roof strength was a dangerous safety issue.

In fact, car manufacturers knew how to produce a safer car that could withstand roof crush, but maintained they were not “required” to do so and so they did nothing, until rollover deaths mounted. Finally, in 2006, a mother paralyzed in a roof crush/rollover accident nearly ten years before was awarded $18.6 million against General Motors. This was an expensive wakeup call for the automakers, and also spurred NHTSA to finally approve strict roof crush standards that will take effect in 2012.


The largest tire recall in history, of 6.5 million Firestone tires, was prompted by defective tires on Ford Explorers that caused nearly 300 deaths and many more injuries.Civil Justice System Drives Auto Safety Innovations Evidence unearthed during several lawsuits indicated that Firestone and Ford had known about the problem for years and had concealed the flaws.

But it was not until August 2000 that an NHTSA investigation forced the recall. Shockingly, Firestone was not the only culprit: Michelin, Cooper and other tire manufacturers have produced and sold tires they knew were defective, correcting this horrific safety problem only after victims filed complaints and took them to court.

Electronic Stability Control

As SUVs captured the hearts of American families and became increasingly popular, it became clear that, because of their design, they were more likely to roll over than other car models. Lawsuits began to pile up for rollover deaths and serious head injuries, especially involving Ford’s Bronco II and Explorer. In an internal memo, a Ford executive admitted that the company’s rollover rate was three times higher than some other SUVs – but Ford did nothing until numerous lawsuits were filed, and millions of dollars in damages were awarded against the company. Another positive outcome: Electronic Stability Control (ESC), an advance that causes brakes on each wheel to be applied individually when a driver loses control. The NHTSA has now required all passenger vehicles under 10,000 pounds to have this safety feature by 2012. Already, in 2010, ESC is standard on 88 per cent of cars and 100 per cent of SUVs.

Door Latches

Until they could no longer get away with it, several car manufacturers produced door latches and handles that opened unexpectedly, killing hundreds of drivers and passengers tossed out of the car in accidents. One company, Ford, had been plagued with the problem for three years when, in 2000, its engineers recommended redesigning defective latches. Instead of ordering a recall and replacing the latches, Ford hunkered down until extensive, and expensive, litigation forced them to use recessed handles. GM, facing a similar challenge, also chose to keep its defective door handles in an estimated 30 million cars, settling lawsuits case by case until the statute of limitations ran out. Fortunately, a $150 million verdict in Georgia in 1996 alerted regulators and the public to this life-threatening safety problem.

“Illusory Park”

The Ford Motor Company was implicated in the 1970s and 1980s in deaths and injuries traced to transmission design defects. The problem was, a door slam or vibration caused transmissions to move out of the “park” position and into reverse – called “false park” or “illusory park” because securing a car in “park” gave drivers the mistaken illusion that the car was secure. Later, in the 1990s, Chrysler minivans and Dodge Dakotas were experiencing the same problem. Both companies knew that these defects could be, and needed to be, fixed. But they took no action until, in several lawsuits, juries found them liable and hit them where it hurt – in their pocketbooks. Apparently not learning its lesson, in the early 2000s Chrysler faced more than 700 reports of unintended shifting in Jeep Cherokees. Chrysler ignored the complaints. In February 2002, the company finally recalled 1.6 million Jeeps – but only because an NHTSA investigation was able to demonstrate the ease with which gears slipped into “illusory park.”

Air Bags

Since the 1950s, automakers have been tinkering with airbag technology. While they were aware of the safety benefits, they were slow to bring airbags to consumers – even though market research indicated that half of customers would be willing to pay more for this safety measure.

Civil Justice System Drives Auto Safety Innovations

The enthusiasm of General Motors (GM), a pioneer in airbag development, waned when the NHTSA announced it would monitor “automatic restraint system malfunctions,” which, despite denials, GM knew occurred frequently. GM curtailed its manufacturing, and dealers backed off on sales. In subsequent lawsuits, however, courts ruled that automakers were fully aware that the absence of airbags made their cars less safe; ultimately, airbags became standard on passenger vehicles. Front airbags became a mandatory safety feature in 1996, and federal law requires that by 2013, all cars, SUVs and trucks must be equipped with side airbags, as well.

Power Windows

Power windows that roll up if someone leans on the switch remain lethal threats to children, some of whom have been strangled when windows closed unexpectedly. But because NHTSA has not promulgated regulations for power window safety, American car manufacturers do not install in domestic automobiles the safer switches that they provide to foreign markets. Responding to an especially tragic case where a three-year-old girl died, a Ford spokesman snipped that parents should supervise their children more carefully! An NHTSA document refers to this safety threat as a “small” one, estimating that an average of about five children under 14 are killed each year in a power window mishap. But data from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety indicates that at least a thousand children are injured yearly. Since September 2009, NHTSA has been considering an amended regulation that would require automatic-reverse power windows in passenger vehicles.


Rarely recognized as potential safety threats, for years automobile seats not built to withstand accidents have been responsible for deaths and injuries to both drivers and passengers. In some instances, for example, a front seat collapses backwards, killing or maiming the passenger behind. Automakers have the technology to design inexpensive high-impact seats that protect both the occupant and other passengers; one estimate is that if manufacturers spent just $1 more, injury levels from seats could be reduced by 90 per cent. Yet, once again, big automobile companies dig in and blame the NHTSA for not passing regulations forcing them to adopt safety measures. The director of the Center for Auto Safety says he is seeing an increase in seat collapse accidents – but until the federal government acts, victims of devastating injuries from seat defects must pursue justice in the courts. Already, some car manufacturers are getting the message; millions of dollars in compensatory and punitive damages have been awarded in lawsuits against Chrysler alone.

In the last half-century, lawsuits to hold vehicle manufacturers accountable have prevented thousands of deaths and made your car safer! Here are some additional resources you can consult on car safety: 

A downloadable checklist to keep in your glove compartment in the unfortunate event of a vehicle accident. This lists all the information you should obtain, along with helpful general information about car crashes.

The federal government watchdog for transportation safety. The site is packed with useful consumer education about driving safety, vehicle safety, safety research, and regulations relating to safety on the highways.

This group promotes traffic safety education through multimedia resources. The site includes on-line courses in traffic safety sometimes used by courts in infraction cases to improve driver safety and civic responsibility.

  • US Website for Distracted Driving

This site is all about distracted driving, how to prevent distractions, how to prevent accidents, and parent resources for educating teens. Includes valuable statistics, tools, and research for education purposes.

Video discussing the basic problems related to texting while driving, including the mechanics of how driving is affected by distraction.

A document sponsored by the US Department of Transportation, analyzing impact of distracted driving while operating large commercial trucks.

Basic information related to defective vehicles, vehicle rollover problems, and regulations affecting vehicle design.

General information about trucking accidents, common causes of truck crashes, truck driver improvement, and actions being taken to improve trucking safety.

Various links to resources providing valuable information about truck and highway safety.

A video discussing boating safety, responsibilities of captains, and potential dangers involved with boating.

The Motor Vehicle Safety Act introduced in Congress in 2010 has the potential to force auto manufacturers to make consumer safety a priority. Otherwise, history tells us that automakers will not do this of their own accord.

If a loved one has been killed or you or a family member has been injured in a  vehicle accident because of an automobile defect, attorneys at Searcy Denney Scarola Barnhart & Shipley can help you seek the justice you deserve. Please fill out our contact form, or feel free to call us at 800-780-8607. One of our staff members will call you back to schedule a free confidential consultation at your convenience.

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