Overview of Automotive Products Liability Law

The everyday operation of millions of cars and trucks on the streets and highways of the United States, and the massive resulting toll in deaths, personal injuries, and property damage caused by motor vehicle accidents, have inevitably created a situation in which the manufacturers and sellers of motor vehicles are implicated as potential defendants in legal actions seeking compensation for the losses arising from such accidents. Products liability law, a subset of the branch of the legal system called tort law, provides the legal standards for determining the potential liability of motor vehicle manufacturers and their dealers in such cases. (The principles of products liability law also apply to non-automotive products, but our discussion here will focus on the law of products liability as it relates to motor vehicles.)

The general legal theories under which a manufacturer or seller of a motor vehicle may be found liable for death, personal injury, or property damage resulting from a vehicular accident are negligence, under which it must be shown that insufficient care was exercised during the design, manufacturing, or assembly process; breach of warranty, which asserts failure to keep a promise about the quality or characteristics of a motor vehicle contained in the contract under which the vehicle was sold; or a more recent concept, strict liability in tort, in which mere proof that a defective product was manufactured, sold, and caused the injury or damage complained of will serve to establish liability without the need for showing either negligence or breach of warranty. Under any of these theories of liability, the most significant aspect of proof is that the vehicle contained some defect in the way it was designed, manufactured, or assembled that caused it not to function as intended, or that the manufacturer or seller failed to warn the purchaser of some risk inherent in its use.

The legal standards applicable in products liability cases are governed by the separate law of each of the states rather than by a single unified body of federal law. (The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, or NHTSA, has enacted a set of regulations, the Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards or FMVSS, with which all new motor vehicles must comply, and these standards may play a role in a products liability action.) The principles of law governing automotive products liability cases, while containing many similarities, will vary from state to state.