An emergence of vehicle technology means product defects may be on the rise

On Thursday, November 3, 2016 in Indianapolis, Indiana two people were killed after a driver lost control of their 2015 Tesla Model S and crashed into a tree. However, it was not the crash that caught rescuers off guard; it was the electric car’s lithium-ion battery, which exploded like a firework following the impact.  According to Indianapolis Star reports, the crash scene was spread over 150 yards, with firefighters attending to multiple fires caused by the lithium-ion battery fragments.

Details are still unknown as to what caused the horrific crash, but the fiery impact raises an important awareness of heightening product defect claims. Defects, particularly in vehicles, can come in all shapes and sizes. And as new technology begins to unfold—active cruise control, lane assist, auto driver—the list of potential vehicle defects will likely continue to rise. Some of the most common defects include defective seat backs, fuel-fed fires, and defective tires.

A seat back fails when it allows the occupant’s torso to move backward toward the rear seat. This can cause significant injury to the seat occupant. Usually the failure is due to a weakly made seat back or a defective recliner mechanism. As for fuel systems, significant system improvements have been made, but there are still potential errors that can occur. For example, some automakers may place fuel tanks in positions where they can be crushed or compromised in a collision, or they fail to properly protect the fuel tank from puncture damage. These types of errors can turn minor crashes into deadly situations.

If an auto defect is responsible how do consumers and advocates begin to compile the info they need for a case? As it turns out, ingenuity and luck may have much to do with it. In 2000, Congress passed the Transportation Recall Enhancement, Accountability and Documentation (TREAD) Act. TREAD requires automakers to report to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) any claims they received that attribute serious injuries and deaths to auto defects. But in 2014, a New York Times investigation revealed that NHTSA had not required automakers to make full disclosures when they conducted death inquiries. It also allowed manufacturers to omit important information by making the following question optional on reports: “What may have caused the accident?” In the Times report, there were only four cases in which a manufacturer responded to the question, and none in which a defect in the vehicle was identified. So poor reporting compliance creates a significant hurdle to investigating whether or not a vehicle defect really did exist and how to prove it.

Although difficult, product defect cases are not impossible. There are numerous investigation techniques early on that can help you prove your product defect case:

  • Do a thorough inspection of the vehicle and the crash site
  • Collect the vehicle’s black box data
  • Identify the vehicle’s pre-accident condition
  • Find an experienced expert who can help you understand why and how the vehicle was flawed

Tesla Motors said in a statement on Friday that they are working with authorities in Indianapolis to investigate the circumstances surrounding the crash. The car couldn’t transmit data to the company’s servers because of the amount of damage from the collision and resulting fire. They do not believe the Autopilot feature caused the crash, however. “Had Autopilot been engaged it would have limited the vehicle’s speed to less than 35 mph on this street, which is inconsistent with witness statements and the damage sustained,” the company said.