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Motor vehicle accidents are an unhappy fact of modern life. Overwhelmingly, driver error is the cause of these mishaps. Nonetheless, manufacturer defects are responsible for deaths and injuries every year. Understanding the laws surrounding automotive defects can help you head off trouble and empower you in the aftermath of an accident.

What Does the Law Say About Manufacturer Defects?

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration offers these examples for safety defects:

  • Steering component failures leading to loss of vehicle control
  • Wheels that crack or break
  • Faulty accelerator controls
  • Windshield wiper components that fail in use
  • Child safety seats that pose a risk of injury, including parked vehicles
  • Faulty jacks, jack stands or ramps
  • Airbags that fail or deploy in a dangerous manner

As part of its definition of safety defects, the NHTSA explicitly rules out “ordinary wear of equipment that has to be inspected, maintained, and replaced periodically.” An automotive component that fails because you failed to keep up with recommended maintenance is not defective in the eyes of the law. On its own merits alone, maintaining your vehicle is wise. Regular maintenance will boost your car’s resale value and make an accident less likely. If you suffer an injury due to a manufacturer defect, your diligent maintenance and recordkeeping may help you receive the compensation you deserve.

What Are the Defect Types?

Vehicle defects fall into two categories:

  • Design defects mean a component’s design was inadequate to live up to the demands of typical use.
  • Manufacturing Defects happen when a component falls short of meeting the original design’s specifications. This type of defect may involve substandard materials or improper installation on an assembly line.

Case Study: The Ford Explorer With Firestone Tires

In some cases, defects may not fit into tidy categories. Beginning in 1996, select lines of Firestone tires on Ford Explorers suffered tread separation, a condition that usually forces motorists to pull over and call a tow truck. With Firestone-equipped Explorers, however, the separations often led to severe accidents, including catastrophic rollovers. Beyond the human tragedies, the incidents would lead to a half-decade of finger-pointing and litigation.

The first-generation Ford Explorer grew out of the Dearborn manufacturer’s Ranger midsized pickup. Adding the extra cab structure to the Ranger platform made for a top-heavy vehicle. To partially relieve this condition, Ford set the recommended tire pressure at 26 pounds-per-square-inch — low for this type of vehicle. While the tire pressure setting improved handling, fuel efficiency suffered. Ford responded by using lightweight materials for the cabin roof in successive models. Ford also requested that supplier Firestone produce tires with lighter weight. The lower material cost also boosted Firestone’s profit margin.

Fatal Decisions

The result was a vehicle still prone to rollovers equipped with tires even more likely to experience tread separation. With the lighter-weight roof, rollovers with the Explorer triggered more serious injuries. While Ford’s tire pressure recommendations and request for thinner tire materials contributed to these accidents, investigations would reveal shortcomings on Firestone’s side as well.

The NHTSA’s investigation showed that a tire component known as a belt wedge was substantially thinner than offerings from Firestone competitors. Worse yet, the belt wedge on manufactured tires was even thinner than the design specifications from Firestone’s in-house engineers — design defect meets manufacturing defect. The belt wedge was not the only manufacturing flaw. Depositions from assembly line workers at an Illinois plant revealed pressure to shortchange inspections to meet production quotas.

The Resolution

Ford and Firestone ended their century-long supplier agreement, with Ford introducing an Explorer redesign in 2001. In its final report, the NHTSA placed the death toll at 62. Owing to non-disclosure clauses in settlement agreements, a dollar figure is difficult to estimate. Automotive historians estimate that Firestone’s Japanese corporate parent paid over $1.5 billion. Working off of Ford’s federal filings, the same historians estimate that the Dearborn automaker spent about $500 million.

In the end, the Ford and Firestone saga was a perfect storm of cascading design and manufacturing defects. While this is an extreme example, the story demonstrates that the legal system can hold deep-pocketed manufacturers to account.

What Should I Do After an Accident?

Your priority after any accident is the well-being of all individuals involved in the incident. Call 911 if you, your passengers or other individuals suffer an injury, and follow the dispatcher’s instructions. If the accident caused injuries, it is against Michigan law to leave the scene without permission from a law enforcement officer. If you or one of your passengers can safely photograph the scene, this is a worthwhile step.

Promptly notify your auto insurance provider. Even if you believe your injuries are inconsequential, see a physician as soon as practical. A traumatic brain injury may not become apparent to a victim for days, but a medical screening can enable early discovery. Preserve every scrap of documentation regarding your medical treatment and rehabilitation, including mileage for treatment or therapy.

What if I Believe a Safety Defect Caused My Injuries?

If you suspect a manufacturer’s defect led to your injuries, it is imperative to retain ownership of your vehicle. Your insurance provider may pressure you to sign the car over to reduce storage expenses. If a safety defect caused your injuries, signing away the vehicle may doom any chance of gaining compensation from a negligent manufacturer. Before agreeing to this step, talk with an attorney experienced in handling auto accident personal injury cases. If the attorney advises you that you have a case, carefully preserve any photographs from the accident scene.

Manufacturers bring significant legal firepower to the table, and that reality means you must avoid discussing any aspect of your accident on social media. Any online comment you make may sabotage your lawyer’s efforts to gain your fair compensation. Deleting posts does not solve this problem. Opposition legal counsel has the resources to monitor and archive your posts and will quite likely use the deletion attempts against you.

Can I Win in a Legal Action?

To prevail in a settlement negotiation or lawsuit, you must establish three points:

  • Your injuries were the direct result of a safety-related defect or design flaw. Proving such a defect requires a law firm with extensive research capability.
  • You were operating the vehicle in line with the manufacturer’s intentions. If your vehicle is an SUV or pickup, do not assume that the vehicle is capable of off-road use.
  • There were no substantial alterations to the vehicle from the time of its first sale. Here’s where accident scene photos and your diligent maintenance recordkeeping can pay off.

Will your case go to trial? It’s unlikely; as with Ford and Firestone case study, most complaints end with a settlement agreement.

Why Should I Contact the Mike Morse Law Firm?

The laws covering vehicle manufacturing defects are complex. If you suffered an injury with a vehicle accident in Michigan and suspect a manufacturer defect was the cause, you don’t have to proceed alone. Over two decades, the Mike Morse Law Firm has obtained over a billion dollars for clients to help them get their lives back on track. We charge no fees unless you win, and we invite you to contact us by phone or take advantage of our online contact form.


Motor Vehicle Safety Defects And Recalls | NHTSA

The Ford-Firestone Case | NYU Stern School of Business

Engineering Analysis Report | NHTSA

Secret settlements | The News Media and the Law


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