Motor Vehicle Defects

Motor vehicle defects are too often safety related and lead to accidents, injuries, and deaths. Consumers have laws protecting them from defective cars, but these are not enough to prevent all harm. Victims can also sue after an accident to recover damages from those who are liable.

What is a Motor Vehicle Defect?

A motor vehicle defect is any fault in a vehicle. It could be something like poor quality paint that leads to damage or rusting. This kind of defect is not a safety issue and is therefore not covered under consumer protection laws.

Safety-related defects are covered under the laws, which aim to prevent accidents and injuries. For instance, an airbag that does not deploy when it should, is a safety defect.

What Are Motor Vehicle Defect Laws?

Both federal and state laws exist to protect consumers against defective vehicles. This includes not just cars but also motorcycles, trucks, vans, and other types of motorized vehicles. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) is a federal agency that regulates vehicle safety. It keeps track of reported defects and safety recalls.[1]

Vehicle manufacturers and dealerships across the country must follow the NHTSA safety rules, but states also have laws. They protect consumers against lemons and govern how victims of accidents caused by defects can file lawsuits and recover damages.[2]

Examples of Common Motor Vehicle Defects

Many different things can go wrong in a vehicle and cause harm to drivers, passengers, or people in other vehicles or on the street:

  • Airbag failures. If the airbag does not work properly, a collision can lead to serious injuries or even fatalities.
  • Brake system failures. Similarly, brake failures can lead to severe accidents with serious repercussions.
  • Steering system errors. A common error in steering causes the wheel to lock up and prevents the driver from avoiding collisions.
  • Crashworthiness. This term refers to the ability of a vehicle to protect the driver and passengers in the event of a crash. Consumers expect cars to have a certain degree of crashworthiness, although not all injuries can be prevented.
  • Restraint defect. The seat belts in a car may fail, resulting in injuries during an accident.
  • Defective tires. A tire blowout is dangerous. It can cause the driver to lose control of the vehicle.
  • Acceleration issues. In 2014, courts ordered Toyota to pay more than $1.2 billion after failing to recall cars with unintended acceleration. This design defect caused many accidents, injuries, and deaths.[3]

Types of Products Liability in Accidents Involving Motor Vehicle Defects

Most cases involving a defective motor vehicle fall under products liability. This means there are two main situations:

  • Defective manufacturing. A claim of defective manufacturing involves a mistake somewhere in the process of making the vehicle or a part. It could be an error in the factory or an issue during shipping or storage at a dealership.
  • Dangerous design. Another potential claim is an unreasonably dangerous design in a vehicle or one of its components. It may have been manufactured correctly, but a flaw in the design makes it unsafe.

How is Liability Proven in Motor Vehicle Defect Cases?

Because defects in cars and other vehicles generally fall under the category of products liability, the burden of proof for the victim is relatively low. In other types of negligence cases the victim has a significant burden of proof. For instance, if another driver causes an accident, the victim must show they were careless, caused the accident, and caused an injury that led to damages.

For products liability, you do not have to prove negligence. You only need to show that the manufacturer of the defective product is liable:

  1. The vehicle or a vehicle part contained an unreasonably dangerous defect. The defect led to your accident or injury.
  2. The injury occurred while you were using the vehicle as intended. In other words, you were not being reckless.
  3. The vehicle is not substantially different from when you first bought it. It still performs about as well as it did at the time of purchase.

Other Types of Laws Relevant to Motor Vehicle Defects

If you suffered an injury because of a defect in a car or other vehicle, you may want to sue for damages. Products liability is commonly the type of law that applies, but every case is different. A lawyer can help you determine what tack to take in a legal suit, but some laws that may apply include:

  • Lemon laws. At the state level, these laws may allow you to replace a defective car at no cost. In most states a car qualifies if it has a substantial defect that is covered under the warranty and that occurred during a specific period of time and could not be fixed after multiple attempts.
  • Consumer protection. Consumer protection laws regulate the warranties that sellers provide for vehicles.
  • Tort laws. Tort refers to a negligent act, or inaction. In the case of a vehicle accident, you may be able to sue for damages if you can prove someone was negligent.

What if I am at Fault in an Accident Involving a Motor Vehicle Defect?

Even if you suffered an injury and damages because of a defect in a vehicle, the manufacturer or dealership could put up a defense that includes blaming you for the accident. For instance, if you had a car for several years before the defect caused an accident, they may claim you must have known about the issue and continued to drive with it anyway.

The defendant may also try to prove that your actions played a role in the accident. This is called contributory negligence. Depending on the state in which the accident occurred, contributory negligence could reduce the damages you recover or prevent you from recovering any damages at all.

The laws that govern accidents and injuries caused by motor vehicle defects are multiple and complicated. The combination of state and federal laws makes it difficult to understand what your rights are and the legal steps you can take. Talk to a lawyer in your state who specializes in these cases to get answers and guidance on your next steps.

  1. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. (n.d.). Motor Vehicle Defects and Safety Recalls: What Every Vehicle Owner Should Know.
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  2. National Independent Automobile Dealers Association. (n.d.). Lemon Law.
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  3. Ross, B., Rhee, J., Hill, A.M., Chuchmach, M., and Katersky, A. (2014, March 19). Toyota to Pay $1.2B for Hiding Deadly ‘Unintended Acceleration.’ ABC News.
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