Three months ago, we began a series of articles discussing product liability claims that arise from single vehicle accidents. A product liability claim focuses on whether or not a product is defective. The purpose of this series is to educate our readers on the many different kinds of product liability claims. In automobile cases, the defective product could be the entire vehicle, or a component part such as the seat belt or tires. Unfortunately, the average motorist has no idea how unprotected he will be in an accident as a driver or passenger in a defective vehicle. Our attorneys are trained to recognize defect claims in motor vehicle accident cases. Any single vehicle accident involving serious injury or death, including paralysis, loss of limb or brain damage, should be carefully analyzed for possible product liability claims. Last month, we looked at tire failures and the injurious consequences of those defects. This month, we look at fuel-fed fires.
Almost everyone remembers the infamous Ford Pinto (discussed in great detail below). That vehicle had a fuel tank mounted behind the rear axle. This position allowed for dangerous and often explosive consequences in rear impact accidents. Similarly, there are GM trucks with gas tanks mounted on the sides of the truck outside the structure of the frame. These “sidesaddle” tanks leave the vehicle vulnerable to fuel-fed fires that result from a side impact. The overall safest positioning of a gas tank is between the front and rear axles of the vehicle. However, manufacturers do not always follow this guideline and many vehicles do not provide the proper structural protection for the tank.
It is not always the location of the fuel tanks that can lead to fuel-fed fires. Design defects related to fuel-fed fires can involve several different vehicle systems. The design issues range from fuel filler cap design and fuel line design to fuel tank design and fuel pump design. Fuel systems should be designed to maintain their integrity during reasonably foreseeable accidents so that occupants do not lose their lives in otherwise survivable accidents. If the occupants can survive crash forces without serious injury, so should the fuel system. For years, the automobile industry has known that simple shielding of the gas tank can prevent fuel-fed fires.
Obviously, if a manufacturer makes a conscious decision not to implement a safety design because of a profit motive then that manufacturer should be subject to a substantial punitive award. In a 1981 case, Grimshaw v Ford Motor Co., Ford’s internal documents showed that the placement of the gas tank of the Pinto over the axle surrounded with a protected barrier would have cost $9.95 per car and that equipping the car with a reinforced rear structure, smooth axle, improved bumper and additional crush space would have cost only $15.30 per car. Despite this information, management decided to defer these “fixes” based on cost savings. The court noted:
There is evidence that Ford could have corrected the hazardous design defects at minimal cost but decided to defer correction of the shortcomings by engaging in a cost benefit analysis balancing human lives and limbs against corporate profits. Ford’s institutional mentality was shown to be one of callous indifference to public safety. There was substantial evidence that Ford’s conduct constituted a conscious disregard of the probability of injury to the members of the consuming public.
In 1999, a Los Angeles jury awarded $4.9 billion to the Anderson family as a result of GM’s defectively-designed Malibu vehicle. When the Andersons’ 1979 Malibu was rear-ended in an accident, the fuel tank was punctured, causing the car to explode into flames. The Plaintiffs, Trisha Anderson and her four children, suffered horrible and debilitating third-degree burns over their bodies as a result of that accident. The worst part of this story is that the injuries were preventable. GM knew years before the accident that there were defects in the fuel system and yet it placed the Malibu on the market anyway.
In fact, GM had performed a cost-benefit analysis comparing the cost of human life, in a dollar amount, to the cost of redesigning the fuel tank system. This cost-benefit analysis became known as “the Ivey Memo,” named for GM engineer Edward Ivey who conducted the cost-benefit analysis at the request of his GM superiors. In that memo, Mr. Ivey found that the estimated 500 fatalities per year caused by fuel fires would cost the company on average, $200,000 per fatality. He further concluded that, based on the numbers of such anticipated fatalities, divided by the number of GM automobiles on the road, that “fatalities related to accidents with fuel-fed fires are costing General Motors $2.40 per automobile in current operation.” This amount is much less than the $8.59 it would cost to use the safer over-the-axle alternative design.
Unfortunately, manufacturers often choose to place profits over the safety of their consumers. To determine if a fuel-fed fire was the cause of death, our firm routinely reviews all automobile accidents in which an occupant was killed or seriously injured by the fire and suffered no skeletal or other life threatening injuries. If you would like more information or have a question, you can contact Greg Allen (Greg.Allen@beasleyallen.com) or Cole Portis (Cole.Portis@beasleyallen.com) in our office at 800-898-2034.
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