Motor vehicles have become dramatically safe since their introduction in the beginning of the 20th century. The quest to make vehicles safer is a multifaceted effort, with innovations from car manufacturers, the National Highway Transportation Authority and from the legal profession.
Through the years, some improvements in vehicle safety have included:
- plate glass has been replaced by safety glass windshields
- crude seat belts have been replaced by full harnesses
- air bags have been developed to supplement seat belts. Now most vehicles not only include a front air bag, but side air bags to prevent damage from car accidents
- antilock brakes have been developed to prevent skidding on wet or icy surfaces
- new designs in frames of motor vehicles allow the vehicle itself, rather than the occupants, from absorbing most of the energy of a crash
In terms of the effect of the increased features on road safety, fatalities on the nation’s highways and car accident injuries have decreased over time. The number of fatalities in 1921 was more than 13,000, as compared to over 32,000 in 2011. However, far more people use the highways than in 1921, and far more miles are driven. When the statistics consider the number of fatalities per 100 million miles traveled (MMT), the fatalities drop from 24.09 in 1921 to 1.10 deaths per MMT.
The Effect of the Legal Profession on Vehicle Safety
Many do not realize the positive effect on the evolution of highway safety. For decades, the legal profession has been a watch dog for the automobile industry. Over the years, there are numerous cases that have kept auto manufacturers in check, ensuring that they do not escape liability for defecting design or manufacturing of motor vehicles. Some of the famous cases are:
McPherson vs. Buick Motors (1916)
Very early in the history of motor vehicle manufacture, a car maker would escape liability claiming lack of “privity of contract.” The manufacture would sell the vehicle to a dealer, who would in turn sell the vehicle to the consumer. If the vehicle was defective, the manufacture would claim that there was no direct contract between the manufacturer and the consumer, and thus, the consumer could not sue them. In a famous New York Court of Appeals opinion written by Justice Cardozo, that defense was eliminated. Where defective design or manufacturing concerned safety, the manufacturer was determined to be ultimately responsible.
Henningsen vs. Bloomfeld Motors (1960)
The New Jersey Supreme Court changed the way dealer or manufacturer warranties were viewed and determined that such warranties could not override state warranties of basic safety or merchantability. The Henningsen’s had purchased a new automobile from the defendant. In less than a month, a small, inexpensive portion of the steering system failed, causing Ms. Henningsen to lose control of the vehicle and crash. The vehicle was totaled. The defendant claimed its warranty only agreed to repair or replace the defective part, not the entire vehicle. The New Jersey Supreme Court found the agreement as unconscionable, since it was the defective part that caused the accident. It required the company to pay for the loss of the vehicle.
Grimshaw vs. Ford Motor Company (1981)
In a famous case that occupied discussion over much of the 1970’s, Ford was sued for a defective gas tank design on the Ford Pinto. The vehicle was subject to catching fire in a rear end collision. What made the case famous was that Ford had calculated how much it would cost them to repair the design defect (approximately $11.00 per vehicle) and balanced it against the cost of potential lawsuits from injured drivers or heirs of deceased drivers. The “cost benefit analysis” used was considered extremely callous, especially considering the low cost of repairing the vehicle. Millions in punitive damages were assessed against Ford, and the federal government eventually forced a recall of the vehicle.
Vehicle Safety Today
Though vehicles are safer today, they are not completely safe. Each year, more than 32,000 people are killed on our highways, and more than 2 million become injured.The legal profession continues the fight to provide the safest possible vehicles even today.
Kristopher Barber is an experienced motor vehicle attorney, with knowledge and experience in seeking restitution not only against a negligent driver, but a negligent manufacturer. Those in the Dallas area suffering a car accident injury should contact a representative of the Barber Law Firm at 972-525-2550 for an evaluation of their case.