Tort reform has become the motto for many businesses and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. If you are only measuring bottom lines, in some cases lawsuits are bad for business. However, there are prime examples of how lawsuits made businesses or even industries better – and their customers safer because of them. The automobile industry is one such industry. In 1970, 54,633 Americans were killed in motor vehicle accidents. The population of the United States at the time was 203 million. Twenty five years later the population had grown by 28 percent and the number of vehicles on the road had increased by 86 percent. Yet, by 1995 the number of Americans killed in auto accidents had decreased to 43,363.
This significant improvement is likely the result of many factors, but one must be significant safety improvements made in cars. The safety improvements result from more effective regulation by the federal government by way of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) and because of the influence of civil juries. One case stands out and it involves how Ford was forced to make safer products after the Bronco II litigation.
The Bronco II was introduced in 1983 and 700,000 were produced before it was replaced by the Explorer in 1989. By 1989 NHTSA had instituted an investigation about a large number of rollovers. Consumer Reports testing made it say consumers should not buy the vehicle. However, NHTSA closed its investigation after receiving Ford’s submission and without questioning Ford’s employees or officials. In lawsuits years later, it was discovered Ford had not submitted all relevant documents to NHTSA. It was learned Ford rushed the Bronco II to market to compete with the Chevy S-10 SUV.
It’s quite probable that Ford knew before it ever built a Bronco II that it would have a rollover problem since it was based on the CJ-7. The CJ-7 had been under investigation for rollovers. Ford even learned in its own testing that the Bronco II was susceptible to rollovers during lane changes and routine avoidance maneuvers. Ford even suspended testing because it feared for the safety of its test drivers. In one deposition, a Ford official admitted to deliberately hiding some of the rollover test results from NHTSA.
NHTSA did nothing to Ford even after it learned Ford had withheld information. This does not work in private litigation. Later, some former NHTSA employees were hired by Ford to be experts in the litigation. NHTSA decided against ordering a recall of the Bronco II. That same year the Bronco II was replaced with the Explorer. While the Bronco II story was special, there were several other SUVs that had the same rollover problem during that time.
This story mirrors others about the Corvair, Pinto and GM pickup trucks with side mounted gas tanks. As a result of lawsuits these vehicles have become safer. Litigation is only one prong in our system that makes products safer. Citizen organizations such as the Center for Auto Safety and Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD), and the media can help bring change and safer products. Lawsuits brought by individuals or families involving deaths in accidents all have helped automobile manufacturers become better at what they are intended to do – provide customers with a safe vehicle to travel in.
While companies are making safer automobiles, the battles continue. GM ignition switch lawsuits, the Toyota unintended acceleration cases and the Volkswagen/Porsche “cheat device” litigations are all more recent examples of why the judicial system and civil juries must continue to be a force in bringing about corporate change and thus safer product change to make these companies better corporate citizens.
If you need more information on this subject, contact Frank Woodson, President of ALAJ, at 800-898-2034 or by email at Frank.Woodson@beasleyallen.com.
Source: Why Lawsuits are Good for America. Carl Bogus
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