Auto Safety Improved By Lawsuits

When a person is hurt in a car accident caused by some problem or defect in a vehicle, he or she may bring a products liability lawsuit against the manufacturer. If the injured plaintiff can convince the jury that the manufacturer built a car that was unsafe and that a safe design existed, then the plaintiff can recover damages for the injuries he or she has suffered.

But products liability suits do far more than provide compensation for those who have been injured by dangerous or defective products: In the long run, they also make those products safer. By bringing dangerous defects to the forefront of the manufacturer’s and public’s attention, reforms are made in the safety of a vehicle’s design and engineering.

In addition to providing an incentive to manufacturers whose overriding concern is their bottom line, lawsuits can also goad regulatory authorities into action, leading to new standards and regulations for new vehicles.

Examples of this chain reaction leading to improved safety in today’s vehicles, include:

Safer Gas Tanks

Perhaps the most famous example of litigation increasing vehicle safety involved the Ford Pinto. The gas tank on the Pinto was prone to exploding when the Pinto was hit from the rear. Ford knew this and knew how to fix the problem for just a few dollars more per car, but they declined to do so because the cost of the fix would exceed the amount paid in damages to those killed and badly burned. This kind of gross sacrifice of human life and suffering did not sit well with juries, and, as it turned out, Ford guessed wrong.

Similarly, GM did not redesign the “side saddle” gas tanks on some of their pickups, which were likely to burst into flames and even explode when hit from the side. Both companies paid many millions in actual and punitive damages. Even though Ford’s design had followed all applicable regulations at the time, the lawsuits led to an industrywide change in how gas tanks are designed.

Unibody Construction

There are many other examples of litigation leading to safer automobile design. A case in point is the 1974 crash of a police officer who lost control of his vehicle and slid into a pole at 25 miles per hour. The sectional frame in his car was insufficient to withstand even this relatively low speed side impact, the force of which caused the car to literally wrap itself around the pole, which ripped through the body of the car and crushed the officer, leaving him a quadriplegic.

Now cars have strong, unibody construction and continuous frames. Additionally, seat belts have been in cars for years, but lawsuits led to improved seat belts that did not have protruding buttons (which could be accidentally unlatched) and to three point belts in back seats.

Roof Support Pillars

Manufacturers’ knowledge that roof support pillars were inadequate to support the roofs of vehicles involved in rollover collisions did not lead to the reinforcing of pillars and roofs; rather, lawsuits brought by people injured when their roofs were crushed led manufacturers to act.


The very manufacturers whose ads now brag about the number of airbags in their vehicles fought tooth and nail to prevent airbags from being made mandatory, despite their own data showing that airbags greatly decreased the chance of car occupants’ being killed in certain accidents. Again, lawsuits arguing that a car with airbags was a safer and a feasible design led to a change in both attitudes and regulations.

Safer Tires

A series of lawsuits led to large recalls of Firestone tires (mostly on Ford vehicles), the treads of which were prone to separate, causing the cars to crash. The problems causing the tread separation have now been addressed.

Power Window Switches

When power windows became common, most had rocker type switches that the user pushed down on to close the window. The problem with this type of switch was that it was possible to lean on the switch by accident, thus raising the window.

In one three month period in 2004, seven children died when they accidentally closed the window and were strangled. Manufacturers knew of the problem and knew it could be solved with switches the user had to pull up on to close the window, but it took a series of lawsuits to convince them to use the safer switches.

The immediate effects of a lawsuit are more easily recognized than the long-term reformations that take place as a direct cause of an auto accident lawsuit. However, the effects of a lawsuit may echo far outside the courtroom and may save hundreds or thousands of lives.

The Law Offices of Richard M. Katz is striving to improve auto safety under more strict guidelines and limitations to ensure the protection and safety of present and future drivers and their loved ones. Please help us by calling today if you have been the victim of injury by vehicle defects.

**Actual resolution of legal issues depends upon many factors, including variations of facts and state laws. This newsletter is not intended to provide legal advice on specific subjects, but rather to provide insight into legal developments and issues. The reader should always consult with legal counsel before taking action on matters covered by this newsletter.

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