Defects in Design, Manufacturing and Maintenance of Motor Vehicles

Sometimes an accident will occur, or injuries will be made worse, by virtue of a defect in a motor vehicle involved in the accident.

Many of the problems are preventable through proper maintenance, or by ensuring that any modifications made to a vehicle are safe and appropriate.


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Defects in Design and Manufacture

Design and manufacturing defects can contribute both to the cause of a car accident, or to the magnitude of the injuries suffered in a car accident.

Although motor vehicles are for the most part much safer today than in the past, design and manufacturing errors still occur. Common problems include:

  • Defective Tires: In recent decades there have been some high profile cases where defects in the manufacture of tires led to a high rate of failure, and thus to a number of accidents.

  • Defective Seat Belts: The failure of a seat belt to restrain a properly belted driver during the course of an accident can provide a basis for a product liability claim.

  • Defective Airbags: Although airbags have been substantially improved so as to reduce the risk to smaller or lighter passengers, they may nonetheless pose risk of injury through their deployment. Even when an airbag system works as intended, drivers may suffer bruises or burns from airbags. Also, sometimes airbags fail to deploy.

    When an airbag does not deploy, or directly causes an injury, it can be worthwhile to explore whether a design or manufacturing defect contributed to the failure or injury.

  • Insufficient Structural Integrity: Manufacturers should anticipate that as a result of motor vehicle accidents, a vehicle may roll over, and perhaps end up on its roof. A vehicle that is not sufficiently designed or constructed may collapse on its passengers during or after a rollover accident.

  • High Susceptibility to Rollover: Sometimes the design of a vehicle will result in its having a high center of gravity that, if not properly considered in the vehicle's overall design, can cause it to be unduly prone to rolling over. If a vehicle rolls over following a sudden turn at highway speeds, or in another circumstance or accident where rollover would be unlikely, it is worth exploring whether the vehicle's design played a role in the accident.

Defects from Modification and Poor Maintenance

Factors in maintenance and modification which can contribute to motor vehicle accidents include:

  • Poor Maintenance of Brakes: Brake failure can be a significant factor in causing an accident, as an unexpected brake failure may leave a driver unable to slow or stop in order to maintain control of a vehicle, or to avoid a collision.

  • Poor Maintenance of Tires: Tire blowouts from old, worn, or improperly patched tires may result in an accident.

  • Dangerous Modifications: Some drivers make after-market modifications to their cars for purposes of appearance or improved performance. Sometimes those modifications are made without regard for vehicle safety regulations and laws. Some modifications may make a vehicle less safe to operate, prevent a driver from being able to properly observe the roadway, or increase the danger to others that may result from a collision. For example, excessively bright headlights or fog lights may be blinding to oncoming drivers.

    The owner or driver of a vehicle that has been modified in an unsafe manner may face civil liability if an injury results from the modification, including an accident caused or worsened by the modification. If the after-market modifications was made by a business, that business may also be liable if the modifications contribute to an accident or injury.

Older vehicles may be subject to serious problems, such as axle failure, suspension failure, or a steering mechanism failure. When similar failures occur on newer vehicles, the failure may suggest a design or manufacturing defect in the vehicle.

When a vehicle owner receives a recall notice for a vehicle problem or defect, the owner should obtain the service or repair necessary to address the underlying problem with the vehicle.

Performing routine vehicle maintenance and inspection may help prevent a mechanical failure from causing or contributing to a motor vehicle accident or injury.

Liability Issues from Defective Vehicles

When an accident results from a sudden emergency that results from poor maintenance of a vehicle, such as a brake failure for a vehicle that has not had its brakes properly maintained, the driver of the vehicle will usually be found to be fully or partially at fault for a consequent accident. A driver may similarly be held fully or partially liable for an accident that is caused by a vehicle with an unsafe modification.

However, it is not only the driver of the vehicle that may be at fault. Additional parties may be liable based on the following theories of liability:

  • Product Liability: When a design or manufacturing defect contributes to an accident or injury, it may be appropriate to bring a product liability claim against the manufacturer of the defective vehicle or part.

  • Negligent Repair or Service: Sometimes a problem with a vehicle results from an error by a mechanic or a service center. For example, a mechanic at a service center may hand tighten the lug nuts on a vehicle's wheel, but forget to properly tighten them. If the vehicle's wheel comes off while the owner is later driving, the mechanic and service center may share liability.

  • Negligent Modification: A person or business that offers vehicle modifications may open itself up to liability if it modifies a vehicle in a manner that renders it unsafe or unlawful to operate on a public roadway, including through inappropriate modifications, the use of the wrong parts, or the use of parts that are not save or approved for highway use.

Auto manufacturers and auto parts producers are skilled at defending themselves against product liability claims, and have significant resources to pay for the defense of such actions. It thus makes sense to have any potential product liability claim reviewed by a lawyer who has expertise with motor vehicle product liability laws, and who has the skills and resources to pursue a complex claim against a major corporation.

Copyright © 2006 Aaron Larson, All rights reserved. No portion of this article may be reproduced without the express written permission of the copyright holder. If you use a quotation, excerpt or paraphrase of this article, except as otherwise authorized in writing by the author of the article you must cite this article as a source for your work and include a link back to the original article from any online materials that incorporate or are derived from the content of this article.

This article was last reviewed or amended on May 7, 2018.