Crashworthiness Doctrine

SB 142 by Sen. Garrett Richter

HB 201 by Rep. Maureen O'Toole

 Issue: Should a vehicle manufacturer that made a defective product that caused injuries in an accident be able to shift blame to the driver of the vehicle?

Position: NO. The crashworthiness doctrine is a long-held principle rooted in case law dating back to 1968 that vehicle manufacturers have an obligation to make their products safe in the event of a crash. Attempts to change this doctrine and allow vehicle manufacturers to shift blame for their defective products to someone else, such as the driver who caused the accident, is wrong and unfair to consumers. If air bags don’t deploy during a head-on collision, a manufacturer could say it’s the driver’s fault.

Letting vehicle manufacturers escape legal and financial penalties for its bad products shifts the financial burden of caring for persons injured by defective products on to taxpayers of the State of Florida, instead of the manufacturers. It also provides no incentive for vehicle manufacturers to make safer cars and will not harm the auto industry, which already builds the cost of liability lawsuits into the price of cars.

History: The crashworthiness doctrine was first established in 1968 in a case called Larsen vs. General Motors. The opinion in that case said that car crashes are inevitable and vehicle manufacturers are responsible for making their cars as safe as reasonably possible in the event of a collision.

In 2001 in Florida, in D’Amario vs. Ford Motor Company, a case about a motor vehicle accident and subsequent vehicle fire, the Florida Supreme Court recognized a clear distinction between fault for causing a car accident and a manufacturer’s liability for a defective product that caused em>enhanced injuries
beyond the initial accident.

In D’Amario, the court held that a manufacturer is only responsible for enhanced injuries. Consequently, a jury may not share fault with the driver of the vehicle. The Supreme Court said the jury’s focus should be on whether a defect existed and whether it caused enhanced injuries, not what caused the initial collision or the conduct of the driver.

Historically, auto manufacturers have shown deep resistance to safety improvements, such as seat belts in the 1960s and air bags in the 1990s because of concerns about costs or marketing. It was only 10 years ago that tire maker Firestone had to recall millions of defective tires that had caused at least 200 deaths and 700 injuries. Since then, there has been a national movement to make vehicles safer and hold manufacturers accountable, with Florida leading the way with its D’Amario decision.

Car Safety
Car manufacturers aren’t expected to design cars that are accident-proof. Over 30 years ago, Florida case law established that vehicle manufacturers are expected to design vehicles that won’t subject occupants to an “unreasonable risk of injury.” Car manufacturers are well aware vehicles get into collisions and of their responsibility to prevent injuries. Ford Motor Company even says in the owner’s manual for its 2005 Excursion: “36,700 crashes occur every day.”

It’s also the reason vehicle manufacturers conduct exhaustive crash-tests, a key indicator used by organizations like Consumer Reports as to whether a vehicle is safe. This is a significant factor that consumers use when purchasing a car. Consumers assume, thanks to published reports about crash-test performances, that highly ranked vehicles like the Honda Civic, for instance, have been designed to protect against injuries.

Escaping Blame
The Florida Supreme Court determined in 2001 that juries should not be able to share fault between the car manufacturer and the driver. But legislative proposals would let car manufacturers escape blame for defective products and undermines the purpose of the crashworthiness doctrine. Juries would be told to consider what led to the accident when determining fault for an enhanced injury, such as a drunk driver. Supporters of this legislation may claim without it, negligent drivers are let off the hook. That isn’t true — negligent drivers are still held responsible for any injuries caused by their reckless behavior, but not injuries caused by defects from a car manufacturer.

Taxpayers Foot the Bill
Another concern with reversing the crashworthiness doctrine is the huge consequences for Florida’s citizens because it passes rehabilitation costs on to the taxpayer. Just because manufacturers are given a free pass to avoid responsibility for injuries they cause doesn’t mean the injuries go away. Instead victims turn to public assistance and the taxpayers end up footing the bill for medical care. In addition, product manufacturers have built in the cost of product liability lawsuits for decades into the price paid for cars.

The Florida Legislature shouldn’t favor out-of-state vehicle manufacturers over the safety of Floridians. Legislative proposals that give vehicle manufacturers the ability to avoid accountability for defective products, and provide no incentive to make products safer, are bad for Floridians. This legislation would be a giant step backward in the quest for safer products and an injustice for consumers and taxpayers.