I have found that many lawyers – even some who regularly handle litigation – know very little about product liability litigation. That is understandable because it is a totally different animal. I will discuss one area that is especially difficult for lawyers to understand unless they have handled such cases. That involves the doctrine of “crashworthiness,” and is still evolving. This very interesting area of the law has been developing over the last 30 years.
The “crashworthiness doctrine” is commonly referred to as the “second collision doctrine” or the “enhanced injury doctrine.” The doctrine developed out of cases where the defect in the product was not the cause of the accident, but was only the cause of the injuries suffered. The Alabama Supreme Court first recognized a cause of action for “crashworthiness” in General Motors Corp. v. Edwards, 482 So.2d 1176 (Ala. 1985).
In the Edwards case, a Chevrolet Chevette burst into flames after being struck from the rear by another automobile. The driver and her husband were severely burned and both of their children died in the fire. The Court in Edwards was persuaded by cases holding that “while a manufacturer is under no duty to design an accident-proof vehicle, the vehicle manufacturer does have a duty to design its product so as to avoid subjecting its user to an unreasonable risk of injury in the event of a collision.” Edwards at 1181.
Simply stated, a car should be crashworthy. The Court’s reasoning in Edwards seemed to be that collisions “are a statistically foreseeable and inevitable risk within the intended use of an automobile” and that “while the user must accept the normal risk of driving, he should not be subjected to an unreasonable risk of injury due to a defective design.” Id.
The crashworthiness theory dictates that an occupant should be protected from consequences of foreseeable collisions. Lawyers in our firm have handled a variety cases involving crashworthiness defects over the years, including:
• fuel fed fire cases where the fuel tank is located in a place on the car that allows it to easily be penetrated upon impact;
• seat back collapse cases where the passenger seat back falls backward upon impact, which causes the passenger to come out of the seat or allows the seat to fall backwards onto someone else in the back seat;
• seatbelt failures that do not properly restrain the occupant or further injure the occupant;
• inadvertent airbag deployments that go off when they are not supposed to, which usually causes facial, spinal, and brain injuries;
• roof crush cases where the structure of the roof does not hold up in a rollover and intrudes into the passenger space, which usually causes spinal and brain injuries or death;
• door latch failures, which allow doors to fly open during a crash, ejecting parts or all of the occupant.
Many crashworthiness cases go uninvestigated because lots of lawyers simply do not understand to look for a defect even if the accident was caused by the driver. For example, in a typical single vehicle crash where the driver admits to speeding or becoming distracted and running off the road, a lawyer might not know to look for seatbelt, airbag, or other structural defects because they assume driver error was the cause. But in a crashworthiness case, it does not matter that the driver caused the accident as long as the driver did not misuse the defective component that caused his injury. The Alabama Supreme Court has consistently held that:
A plaintiff’s mere inadvertence or carelessness in causing an accident should not be available as an affirmative defense to an AEMLD [Alabama Extended Manufacturer Liability Doctrine] action. To allow a plaintiff’s negligence relating to accident causation to bar recovery will go against the purpose of the AEMLD, which is to protect consumers from defective products. The defense of contributory negligence in an AEMLD action should be limited to assumption of the risk and misuse of the product. The plaintiff’s negligence relating to accident causation should not bar recovery. Dennis v. American Honda Motor Co., 585 So. 2d 1336, 1339 (Ala. 1991).
The important thing to remember is that crashworthiness cases can be easily overlooked. Lawyers in our firm have successfully handled many crashworthiness cases and will look at any single vehicle accident involving catastrophic injuries. For more information, contact Cole Portis, who heads up the firm’s Personal Injury/Product Liability Section, or Greg Allen, our firm’s most experienced product liability lawyer, at 800-898-2034 or by email at Cole.Portis@beasleyallen.com or Greg.Allen@beasleyallen.com
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