On August 8, 2014, Volkswagen recalled 18,500 model-year 2009 Routan minivans for the same ignition-switch defect that has led to recalls of 2.6 million GM vehicles, approximately 1.7 million Chrysler vehicles, and 4,500 Harley-Davidson motorcycles. According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), the VW Routan minivans, like the other vehicles that have this defect, can inadvertently be knocked into the accessory mode or off position when a heavily loaded keychain pulls down the key, when a driver’s knee jostles the key ring while the key is in the ignition, or when the key is jarred by a bump in the road or even the slightest collision.
The affected VW minivans are Chrysler-made. According to national media reports, Chrysler notified NHTSA in late June 2014 that the VW Routan minivans had the same ignition-switch problem as the 792,000 Jeep SUVs Chrysler had recalled in early June 2014. Volkswagen has advised owners to remove all non-ignition keys and key fobs from their key rings, and Chrysler has warned drivers to keep their knees away from the ignition. Volkswagen will notify owners of the recall and dealers will make no-cost modifications to the ignition switches of the affected cars.
Though no injuries have been reported as a result of the VW defect, this ignition-switch defect has significant potential to cause accidents, serious injuries, and wrongful death. To date, at least 13 deaths have been attributed to the same defect in GM vehicles. The knocking of the electrical system into the accessory or off position can turn off the engine, stall the vehicles, and disable power steering, power brakes, and airbags. The loss of these functions increases the likelihood of crashes as well as injuries resulting from such crashes if airbags fail to employ.
Who is liable when an accident is caused by a defect such as the ignition-switch defect currently plaguing so many car and other motor vehicle manufacturers? Who is liable if the defect does not cause the accident itself, but enhances an accident victim’s injuries because the victim’s airbag did not deploy? The answers to these questions may depend, in part, on the law of the state in which an accident occurs as well as the specific circumstances of the particular case.
Liability for Motor-vehicle Accident Injuries or Deaths
When someone is killed or sustains injuries in a car crash or other traffic accident, the accident victim may be entitled to compensation from drivers whose negligence contributed to the victim’s accident and resulting injuries or death and from the manufacturers and others in the chain of distribution of cars or other motor vehicles that contain a defect that is determined to have been a cause of the victim’s injuries or death.
Liability for Injuries Caused or Enhanced by Motor-vehicle Defects
When an accident victim’s injuries are caused by a defect in a car or other motor vehicle, the victim generally seeks compensation for those injuries through the institution of a product-liability action. Though most states have enacted some form of the Model Uniform Product Liability Act (MUPLA), the law of product liability differs from state to state. Under most states’ product-liability law, however, the manufacturers, designers, suppliers, and assemblers of defective vehicles or vehicle components may be held liable for injuries or deaths of accident victims if it is determined that a defect in a vehicle was a cause of a victim’s injury or death.
Product-liability actions for personal injury or death are generally brought as strict liability actions against these defendants. This allows a plaintiff to recover damages for injuries or death caused by a defect by establishing that the defect existed, that it was a cause of the injuries or death, and that the plaintiff suffered legally compensable damages as a result. The plaintiff need not establish that the defendants were negligent in manufacturing or designing the defective vehicle or even that they had knowledge of the defect when the victim’s accident occurred.
In some cases, the defect in a car or other motor vehicle does not cause the accident itself, but leads to what the law refers to as “enhanced” injuries, or death. If, for example, a defect caused an airbag to fail to deploy, as could the ignition-switch defect present in the recalled VWs, Vokswagen and others in the chain of the vehicle’s distribution (including Chrysler) may be held strictly liable under product-liability law for the injuries or deaths caused by the failure of the airbag to deploy.
Injuries or Deaths Caused by Driver Negligence
The negligence of a driver may also contribute to a crash and an accident victim’s injuries or death, even when a vehicle defect is also involved. If a negligent driver caused a crash and the victim’s airbag failed to deploy due to an ignition-switch defect, for example, the driver may also be found liable for the injuries or death of the victim.
Recalled Defective Cars and Other Vehicles Are a Serious Matter
Today’s writer, Jeff Killino, is a respected litigation attorney and the managing partner of The Killino Firm, P.C. Attorney Killino has extensive experience with all types of accident and wrongful death cases, including those arising out of injuries or deaths caused by vehicle defects and driver negligence, and urges consumers to protect their safety by taking recalls seriously. Attorney Killino has achieved national recognition on major television networks, such as CNN, ABC FOX, and the Discovery Channel, for his involvement in such cases, including a product-liability action that resulted in the recall of 450,000 defective tires manufactured in China.