THE BLOG

How the Civil Justice System Spurs Auto Safety Innovation

06/22/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Though Toyota's sudden acceleration fiasco is front-and-center today, similar scenarios have unfortunately been repeating themselves for decades. But a new report released by the American Association for Justice illustrates that if history is any judge, the litigation brought against Toyota will spur innovations in auto safety, and inevitably make the company more responsible and responsive to problems.

The report explains how since the 1960s, design defect litigation has enforced safety standards, revealed previously concealed defects and regulatory weaknesses, and deterred manufacturers from cutting corners on safety for the goal of greater profits.

Consider power windows. Auto safety litigation was critical in forcing American manufacturers to install safer power window controls following multiple deaths of children. One case that brought the problem to light involved a Texas mother who was speaking to her husband through the driver's side window of a Ford F-150 when her three-year old daughter leaned out of the passenger's side window and accidentally hit the "rocker" style switch. The window closed, strangling the child to death.

Manufacturers were well aware of the risks of rocker switches inadvertently closing if a child leaned on one; in 2004, seven children died in the span of three months. Car companies even installed safer "pull-up" switches in the cars they offered to foreign markers. But it took litigation for manufacturers to install safer switches in domestic cars, since the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration had no rules governing power window safety.

Another fix spurred from litigation was a defective transmission design in Chrysler and Ford-produced cars in the 1970 and 80s that produced an "illusory park" position - meaning the driver thought that car was secured when it fact it was not.

At least 90 injuries and deaths were reported as a result of this defect, including that of Kim Golden, who got out of her parked 1997 Dodge Caravan to speak with a friend, leaving her four-year old daughter in the car. Moments later the van began to roll away with her daughter inside. Golden chased after the van and grabbed a door in an effort to stop it. She was knocked down and crushed under a wheel. She died, five months pregnant with twins.

It was discovered during litigation that Ford engineers had known about the illusory park problem since 1971 but had taken no action to correct it, and Ford finally eliminated the illusory park position hazard after it lost two lawsuits filed by people injured as a result of the design.

Unfortunately, it's only after tragic accidents that we closely analyze the agencies and systems that failed, and what must be corrected. While this report just focuses on automakers, corporate offenders like Enron, AIG, Massey Energy and Goldman Sachs all provide examples of what happens when corporations are allowed to let profits trump basic consumer protections.

And with each scandal, one institution consistently protects consumers and holds wrongdoers accountable: America's civil justice system.

The report, entitled "Driven to Safety: How Litigation Has Spurred Auto Safety Innovations," can be found at www.justice.org/autosafety.