LITIGATE OR SETTLE? A CASE STUDY IN AUTOMOBILE PRODUCT LIABILITY

Was your accident caused by a product defect in an automobile? Read on to learn about the challenges in holding one automaker accountable.

A motor vehicle accident case based on an alleged product defect requires a victim to produce evidence supporting both the liability and damages aspects of his or her claim. The ignition switch recall notices issued by General Motors provide a recent case study.

Automobile product liability: G.M.’s recall notices

G.M. has recently faced several congressional hearings and discussed a $35 million federal penalty for its potentially defective ignition switches. The automaker also issued a recall notice for an estimated 2.6 million vehicles affected by the defect. In addition, G.M. executives have faced some tough questions about whether the company should have known — or had actual knowledge — of the defect years before issuing the recalls.

Regarding G.M.’s automobile product liability, at least some black-box data indicates that the alleged defect could cause a moving vehicle to lose power. The resulting loss of power steering and power brakes, in turn, may cause a driver to lose control and crash.

A two-part effort: proving liability and damages

Unfortunately, the ongoing investigation and media coverage of G.M. provides small consolation to the hundreds of motorists who claim to have been injured by the faulty ignition switches. Many of those victims are facing the decision of whether to accept a payment through G.M.’s compensation fund or to personally litigate their claims. The decision can be difficult, as there is no guarantee of success — even in a case that has garnered national media coverage.

In one example, a six-year-old victim who was partially paralyzed in a GM motor vehicle crash that killed his great-grandmother and aunt decided to bring an individual civil lawsuit. Incredibly, G.M. responded with a motion to dismiss the claim for lack of standing, asserting that the pre-bankruptcy company that made the 2005 Chevrolet Cobalt at issue is not the same company as the post-bankruptcy G.M. of today.

In addition to liability defenses, a defendant may also vigorously dispute the amount of damages claimed by an accident victim. A personal injury damages claim is typically based on consideration of immediate medical expenses as well as long-term or even lifetime continuing care costs. Lost wages and pain and suffering may also be added to a damages claim. However, a defendant may attempt to reduce damages by requesting a crash victim to undergo an independent medical examination. A defendant may also object to long-term treatment proposals in an effort to induce the victim to settle for a much lower amount.

Weighing the litigation hazards

As this case study indicates, a strong personal injury case requires a great attention to detail. Experts may be needed to explain an automobile product defect in simple terms so that jurors can evaluate that evidence under the applicable products liability statute. Doctors may also be needed to testify to the amount of injuries suffered by a victim. An attorney that focuses on automobile product liability and accidents can coordinate all of these puzzle pieces into a persuasive, complete narrative for a jury’s benefit. An attorney can also help a victim evaluate any settlement offers that might be made by the defendants. Such offers may be made even on the eve of the jury’s decision.