Product Liability Claims Involving Defective Cars 

Republished with Permission © 2009 Nolo.

Learn about defective product cases involving cars, trucks, SUVs, motorcycles, ATVs, and other motor vehicles.

If you have been injured or suffered other kinds of damages because of a defective car, truck, SUV, motorcycle, ATV, or other motor vehicle (or vehicle part), you may have a product liability claim.

Some examples of motor vehicle defects that have been the subject of lawsuits in recent years include:    

- SUVs that are prone to rolling over

- cars sold with tires that are prone to blowouts

- motorcycles that "wobble" when driven at high speeds, and

- all terrain vehicles (ATVs) that are prone to rolling over.

Here are some of the special features of product liability claims arising from defective cars, car parts, and other motor vehicles and parts. (To learn the basics of defective product claims, see Nolo'sProduct Liability FAQ.)

Types of Product Liability Claims Involving Motor Vehicles Product liability claims involving motor vehicles typically come in two varieties: 

Defectively manufactured vehicles or vehicle parts.  This type of claim involves vehicles or vehicle parts that have been improperly manufactured in some way. This may be the result of an error at the manufacturing facility where the vehicle or part was made, or a problem that occurs during shipping or at the dealership or supply.

Vehicles with an unreasonably dangerous design. This category of claims involves vehicles or parts that, although properly manufactured, have an unreasonably dangerous design that results in injury or other damages. Sometimes these cases involve vehicles or parts that have been on the market for some time before it is discovered that they are dangerous.

Identifying the Potential Defendants in Your Case

Be sure to identify and include in your lawsuit all potential defendants in your case. (To learn more about identifying defendants in products liability cases in general, read Nolo's article Defective Product Liability Claims: Who to Sue?.) This usually means including all participants in the "chain of distribution" of the motor vehicle or vehicle part involved in your case – that is, the path the vehicle or part takes from the manufacturer to the consumer.

In cases involving motor vehicles, the chain of distribution usually includes the following types of defendants (there may be more than one defendant in any given category):

Manufacturer.  In products liability cases involving motor vehicles, the manufacturer is typically a large company.  This means it may have more money to compensate you for your injuries. But it also usually means that it will be able to hire a team of high-priced lawyers to defend the case.

Parts manufacturer.  If your case involves a defective part, such as the tires or the battery, be sure to include the manufacturer of that part if it is a separate company from the vehicle manufacturer. You should sue both the vehicle manufacturer and the manufacturer of the defective part (unless you bought the defective part separately -- a replacement set of tires, for example -- in which case the vehicle manufacturer is not part of the chain of distribution and probably would not be liable).

Car dealership or automotive supply shop. Whoever sold the vehicle or the specific defective part may be liable to you for your damages -- even if you were not the actual buyer. To learn more about this, see “What if the Defective Vehicle Did Not Belong to Me?,” below.

Middleman or shipper.  Any company, including the shipper or other middlemen, that was part of the chain of distribution between the manufacturer of the defective vehicle or part and the dealership or other retailer where it was sold may be liable for your damages.

Used car dealer.  Even if the vehicle involved in your case was bought used, the dealer who sold it may be liable in certain cases.  This is a developing area of the law and may vary from state to state depending on the specific circumstances of your case.

What If the Defective Vehicle Did Not Belong to Me?

Even if the defective vehicle involved in your case did not belong to you, you may still have a valid product liability claim. For example, if you borrowed someone else's defective motor vehicle or were injured by a defective vehicle driven by another driver, you may still have a valid claim and should include any and all of the types of defendants discussed above.

Is It a Product Liability Claim or a Traffic Accident Claim?

If you were involved in a traffic accident and either you or another driver was driving a defective motor vehicle, you may have both a product liability claim against the manufacturer (as well as other potential defendants discussed above) and a negligent driving claim against the other driver (in other words, a routine traffic accident claim).

The legal basis for a defective product claim is somewhat different from a negligent driving claim. (To learn more about negligent driving cases, read Nolo’s article Car Accidents Caused by Negligence.) Fortunately, you do not have to choose.  As long as they have a reasonable legal basis, you should include every available type of legal claim in your complaint.

Theories of Liability in Defective Motor Vehicle Cases There are several legal theories of liability available in defective motor vehicle cases. These include:    Breach of express warranties.  If the vehicle or part involved in your case came with any sort of written warranty or guarantee, the defect may constitute a violation (or "breach," in legalese) of that warranty.Breach of implied warranties.  Most states impose certain minimum standards on products (known as "implied warranties"), regardless of whatever express warranties came with the product. The particular vehicle defect in your case may constitute a violation of those implied warranties.Strict products liability.  Many states have adopted strict products liability laws, which relieve you of any burden of having to show that the manufacturer or supplier of a defective vehicle or part was not sufficiently careful in making or distributing that product (a big advantage to you!). You just have to show that the vehicle or part is somehow defective and that the defect was the cause of your injury or damages.

Additional legal arguments may be available to you depending on the particular circumstances of your case. (To learn more, read Nolo's articleDefective Product Claims: Theories of Liability.)

Proving Your Claim You will have to prove three things in order to win your lawsuit:    you were injured or suffered other types of losses ("almost injured" doesn't count)the vehicle involved in your case was defectively manufactured or dangerously designed, andthe manufacturing defect or dangerous design was the cause of your injury.

In products liability cases involving motor vehicles, the outcome often comes down to the third issue listed above. One of the most common defenses raised by the vehicle manufacturer in such cases is that it was the plaintiff's poor or reckless driving -- not the vehicle itself -- that is to blame for the injuries. (For a more detailed discussion of what you must prove in defective product claims in general, read Nolo's article Proving a Defective Product Liability Claim.)

Class Action Lawsuits

If the vehicle at issue involved a mass-produced defect or a dangerous design, you may be able to band together with other injured people and file a class action lawsuit.

In some cases, a class action may already have been filed in connection with the particular vehicle defect involved in your case (the class action filed in connection with allegedly defective tires on certain Pontiac GTO models is one recent example), and you may have the option of joining that already-existing lawsuit. Joining an existing class action has several advantages:

the lawyers for the class, who may have considerable experience and expertise in bringing big cases against big companies, will become your lawyers as wellthere will likely be little or no upfront cost to you, andyou will not have to sort out potentially complex legal issues, such as where to file your claim.

You also have the option of not joining an existing class action and bringing your own lawsuit instead. This may be appropriate if the nature of your injuries or damages are substantially different from those of other members of the class action, or if there are special circumstances in your case.

Consider consulting with a lawyer to find out if there is an already-existing class action concerning the defective vehicle involved in your case, and if so, whether it is advisable for you to join that class action. (If there is an already-existing class action, consider contacting the lawyers for the class directly; they will likely be very interested in talking with you.) Such initial consultations are usually free of charge.